Editorial: Noble fight for the right to vote

  • Dee Milliken, of Charlestown, takes a daily walk with her son Justin Milliken, 19, who has cerebral palsy, through their Charlestown, N.H., neighborhood after his return home from the day program at the Cedarcrest Center Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Milliken was reported by the town's supervisor of the checklist for possible voter fraud to the Attorney General's office after she helped Justin vote in the November 2018 election. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Published: 6/19/2019 10:10:23 PM
Modified: 6/19/2019 10:10:15 PM

So, this is the public face of the much-hyped “voter fraud” issue in New Hampshire? A mother helping her 19-year-old son cope with his disabilities and participate in democracy?

As detailed last week by staff writer Tim Camerato, this sad saga began last November when Dee Milliken went to the polls in Charlestown with her son Justin, who has cerebral palsy and a seizure condition, is largely non-verbal and uses a wheelchair. Their reception, as described by the elder Milliken, was anything but welcoming.

She was initially denied permission to accompany her son into the voting booth to provide assistance in marking his ballot, a decision that was reversed after Milliken explained her system of communicating with Justin. They also were not allowed to use a polling area specifically set aside for people with disabilities because they would not be using the touch-screen equipment it contained.

Despite these indignities, they persevered and celebrated the milestone by taking photos outside. Seven months later, though, Milliken found out she was in hot water. A local election official had raised a concern about the propriety of the vote and questioned whether Justin was capable of understanding the ballot, with the result that the Attorney General’s Election Law Unit launched an inquiry.

This would be laughable were it not so serious: Voter fraud in the Granite State carries penalties ranging from a $5,000 fine to several years in jail. And after answering the investigator’s questions, Dee Milliken was understandably taken aback to find herself in the Attorney General’s crosshairs simply for helping her son exercise his right to vote. She told Camerato, “I’m still in shock. All weekend, that’s what I have been thinking about. Do you have to have a certain IQ to vote? What about if you have a stroke or Alzheimer’s?”

After a few anxious days, she was informed that she was in the clear.

There is a lot to unpack in this sorry episode. One is that the only qualifications to vote in the state are that the person must be 18 years old, a U.S. citizen and domiciled in the town or ward she or he wants to vote in.

As results of some past elections demonstrate conclusively, there is no mental competency test for voting in New Hampshire. Moreover, the Millikens made more effort than the average voter to inform themselves, attending a candidates forum and hosting a get-together with aspiring lawmakers to discuss issues related to disabilities.

Another thing this story demonstrates is people with disabilities still face unnecessary barriers to full participation in society, including in the democratic process. Too many of those barriers are erected by fellow citizens, either willfully or through ignorance.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that people who experience disabilities have the same rights that the rest of us do, which includes the right to vote,” said U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., herself the mother of a disabled son. “(T)he most important thing for people to take from this story about Justin and his mom ... is that Justin really wants to fully participate in his community and in the civic life of our community and our state.”

Another takeaway is that the state would do well to lose its unhealthy obsession with purported illegal voting, which, when it does take place, proves again and again not to be widespread and systematic, as claimed, but rare and almost always the result of confusion or human error. Voting is a right, and rights are to be cherished, not circumscribed arbitrarily by election officials or narrowly restricted by legislative initiative.

New Hampshire ought to be mortified by what the Millikens went through. As for mother and son, we salute their efforts to make democracy their own and hope they persist in vindicating Justin’s voting rights.

Valley News

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