Could having a court-ordered guardian mean losing your right to vote in Missouri?
The Phelps County Clerk wanted to take anyone with a court-ordered guardian off the voting rolls. She relented, but people with disabilities and their advocates concerned about the future are fighting back.
Mark Murphey of Rolla works, pays taxes and votes, but because he has a court-ordered guardian, he nearly lost his access to the polls.
Murphey has hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid continually collects around his brain, and he has a shunt that drains the fluid into his stomach. The condition has left him mentally disabled, and he has seizures.
He has lived on his own for most of his adult life, but when he had to go to the emergency room for a back injury in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he encountered a problem.
“The triage nurse said, ‘Are you his guardian?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m his father,’ and she said, ‘Then you can’t go in,’” said Mark’s father, John Murphey.
John was worried that especially with Mark being in pain, it would be difficult for him to communicate with the doctors and nurses and remember their instructions. So to avoid situations like this in the future, John was appointed his son’s guardian.
And while Mark now needs his dad’s permission to sign a contract, and he can’t drive, the court order specifically states Mark can get married and vote.
But Phelps County Clerk Pam Grow disagreed. She told the Phelps County Commission in late May that she planned to remove all voters from the rolls who had guardians appointed to them.
Her argument was that the state constitution requires such a move, citing Article VIII, Section 2.
“No person who has a guardian of his or her estate or person by reason of mental incapacity, appointed by a court of competent jurisdiction and no person who is involuntarily confined in a mental institution pursuant to an adjudication of a court of competent jurisdiction shall be entitled to vote.”
Grow did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
But her opponents are speaking out and challenging her authority to try to resolve the conflict between court orders that specifically guarantee the right to vote and a clause in the state constitution.
“We can’t leave that to a county clerk to make that decision,” said Laura Taylor, the executive director of Phelps County Industrial Solutions, where Murphey and dozens of other disabled people work.
“I feel like that’s where we need to be following the court, the judges, to interpret the law, interpret the constitution, and if they think there is a spot there to allow that person to vote, then I don’t understand what the issue is,” Taylor said.
It’s not clear how many people in Taylor’s employ, or in Phelps County, or anywhere in the state would be affected by such a ruling. Court-ordered guardianships are protected legal documents that can’t be accessed without cause.
Taylor said the bigger issue is how callously the decision was made to try to revoke the voting rights of citizens of Phelps County.
“That completely devalues the individual. Especially the individuals that I employ, as well as those in competitive employment, have the complete capability to make a lot of decisions for themselves,” Taylor said.
Grow eventually backed off her attempts to remove people with guardians from the voter rolls, but not because she thinks she is wrong.
She told the commission that she did not have the backing of the county or the secretary of state, and that she was “hung out to dry.”
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft declined to be interviewed for this article, but his spokesperson issued a statement that said, in part: “Though the secretary of state’s office has no direct authority over county clerks nor can we advise them in legal matters, Missouri statute is clear on removing voters. It would be the responsibility of the courts to determine if there is a conflict with the state constitution.”
Grow is approaching the end of her second term in office and is not seeking reelection this fall. That has John Murphey wondering why this is happening now.
“She told me, ‘I took an oath to uphold the constitution.’ And I said, ‘OK, that’s good. You did that. Why didn’t you do this 7½ years ago?’” he said.
Mark Murphey was dumbfounded as to why he was so close to losing his right to vote, and it made him feel terrible.
“I just feel like I wouldn’t have a say, or anything like that. I wouldn’t be able to give my opinion on who should be running the community,” he said. “I’ve really paid attention to the news and seeing what’s going on out there.”
The concern among the people with disabilities and their advocates is that this issue could surface again, with little warning, in any county in the state.
“This does affect a number of people. And the thing that gets me is that it purges the voter rolls. It’s taking people off who deserve to be there,” John Murphey said.
Murphey will not let his son’s right to vote be at risk. He is talking with lawyers and judges to see if there is a legal way to resolve the issue, and to state legislators to investigate if a new law or even a change in the constitution is necessary.
“This battle is not over,” John Murphey said.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl
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