N.H. Attorney General’s Office clears Charlestown woman who helped disabled son cast ballot

  • Dee Milliken pushes her son Justin's wheelchair into a screened gazebo outside their Charlestown, N.H., home where he likes to watch TV after coming home from the day program at Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Justin Milliken, 19, voted for the first time last November with the help of his mother. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photo — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2019 5:26:37 PM
Modified: 6/13/2019 10:06:48 PM

CHARLESTOWN — The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office on Thursday cleared a Charlestown mother of any wrongdoing in assisting her disabled son at the polls, dismissing any suggestion she had committed voter fraud.

“We have concluded that the appropriate steps were taken on election day and no further action is required by this office regarding Justin’s voter registration and voting,” Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen wrote in a letter Thursday to Dee Milliken.

Milliken accompanied her 19-year-old son Justin into a voting booth in November and marked his ballot for him, but election officials in Charlestown later contacted state officials and questioned whether Justin could effectively communicate his choice in candidates. Dee Milliken was called by an investigator at the Attorney General’s Office last week and told there was an inquiry into the vote.

Justin Milliken has cerebral palsy and a seizure condition. He is nonverbal and largely communicates through grunts and facial expressions, which is why he cannot fill out a paper ballot on his own, his mother said.

“I’m grateful that they came to the conclusion that they did,” Dee Milliken said in a phone interview Thursday. She also thanked people who reached out in the past week to express support.

The letter from the Attorney General’s Office comes after disability advocates and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., spoke out this week in support of Milliken and criticized the treatment that the Millikens faced while voting.

“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,” Hassan, a former governor and the mother of a disabled son, said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Milliken said a poll worker initially told her she wouldn’t be allowed to accompany Justin into the polling booth to help fill out his ballot. And, she said, poll workers denied access to a voting station designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities because Justin wouldn’t be using the touchscreen system installed there.

Hassan said she was outraged by Milliken’s story. Her 30-year-old son Ben also has cerebral palsy, is nonverbal and votes with the help of a caregiver. She said he communicates by either raising a hand or using his eyes.

“He’s really excited to vote just the way all of us are,” Hassan said. “I think that’s the most important thing for people to take from this story about Justin and his mom, Dee, is that Justin wants to fully participate in his community and in the civic life of our community and our state. ”

Hassan went on to say that just because a person cannot communicate by speech doesn’t mean they can’t be “full and active participants in our society.”

Laura Perez, executive director of the Lebanon-based Special Needs Support Center, also said she supports the Millikens.

“Voting is just as important to people with developmental disabilities as it is to everyone else,” Perez said in an email on Thursday. “This case provides a critical moment, rich with opportunity for our region to affect wide, deep and sustained change.”

The New Hampshire Disability Rights Center said on Wednesday that the November voting incident demonstrated “a fundamental misunderstanding of the rights of people with disabilities and the determination of voter competency.”

The treatment the Millikens received also indicated “a problematic lack of training for Charlestown poll workers and election officials around voters who require assistance in voting, and accessible voting generally,” the center, which advocates for the legal rights of disabled Granite Staters, said in a statement.

Under state law, a voter has the right to bring any person, aside from an employer or union representative, into the ballot box to assist in the voting process, so long as they swear to the moderator that assistance is necessary, the group said.

The person chosen must then take an oath to fill out the ballot as directed by the voter.

The Disability Rights Center also said there is no legal basis for a clerk or town moderator to preemptively deny someone the ability to cast a ballot because of a perceived lack of competency. A probate judge may remove a disabled person’s right to vote as part of a guardianship order, the group said, but absent that order, “there is no competency test, qualifying question, or IQ standard to restrict a New Hampshire resident’s right to vote because of their disability.”

However, the moderator is charged with administering the oath required to allow an aide to assist at the polls, “and ensuring with a reasonable level of certainty that the voter understands and agrees to the oath,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote in its letter to Milliken.

If the election official isn’t able to determine the voter is capable of taking the oath or communicating in some fashion that they understand what’s being agreed to, the moderator is allowed to deny the voter assistance, the letter said.

Both the Attorney General’s Office and the Concord-based Disability Rights Center said the accessible voting booths installed at every New Hampshire polling place are there for all people with physical disabilities, not just those using the touch screen system.

Vermont introduced a similar electronic voting system in 2018, according to Will Senning, the state’s director of elections and campaign finance.

Vermont state law also allows an aide to assist a disabled person in the voting process, Senning said. There’s no law or authority that would allow a poll worker to deny someone the right to vote based on their mental capacity, he said.

Milliken said that it’s up to Justin to decide whether to vote in Charlestown again. The Attorney General’s inquiry upset him, but because he had not returned home from school at the Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities in Keene on Thursday when she received the letter, she had not yet been able to tell him about the successful resolution.

“I hope he wants to vote,” she said.

The Attorney General’s Office also sent a letter to Charlestown Supervisor of the Checklist Nancy Houghton, who had contacted authorities after the Nov. 6 election with questions about Justin Milliken’s voting, and to Town Moderator Gabriel St. Pierre and Town Clerk Patricia Chaffee. The letter said Charlestown election officials had correctly allowed Justin to register to vote and walked them through the “proper procedures” for administering the voter assistance oath, which Justin and his mother would again need to take when he goes to vote in the future.

Houghton could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Dee Milliken said she intends to stay active, attending candidate events and speaking to legislators about issues affecting disabled people in New Hampshire, such as Medicaid reimbursement rates and the need for more health care providers.

“I’m very happy that I can accept in myself that I am advocating for my son and that it’s always been difficult but through difficult times come positive outcomes,” she said. “That’s what I really want, positive changes.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Justin Milliken and his mother, Dee Milliken, talk about his day at school on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, at their home in Charlestown, N.H. Dee Milliken was reported to the state Attorney General’s Office by Charlestown’s supervisor of the checklist for possible voter fraud after she helped Justin vote in the November 2018 election.

Continue reading after the letters.

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