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Suit aims to strike down law barring vote by committed mentally ill

February 25, 2016

A proposed class-action lawsuit naming state election officials and the clerk of Jefferson County argues a 1995 state law preventing people committed to a state hospital from voting in local elections is unconstitutional.

Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission Thursday sued on behalf of Patricia Featherston, who is committed to Madison State Hospital as a mentally ill person. The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

The suit challenges Indiana Code 3-5-5-17, which provides that someone judged mentally ill and committed to an institution “does not gain residency in the precinct in which the institution is located.” It notes people living in veterans homes and on college campuses, for instance, can vote in local elections where those institutions are located.

The lawsuit notes that Featherston has nowhere else in Indiana where she can legally vote.

The suit seeks an injunction against enforcement of the statute it claims is discriminatory and a declaration the statute is unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The suit also claims the statute violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Proposed in the litigation is a class of adults who aren’t able to vote or won’t be able to vote in the precinct where the institution they are committed to is located. The subclass is defined as class members who reside or will reside at Madison State Hospital.

At least 21 Madison State Hospital residents voted in a recent election in their local precinct but won’t be able to vote in future elections because of enforcement of the statute, the suit says. It alleges Jefferson County Clerk Karen Mannix indicated the Indiana Secretary of State’s office informed her that the law bars people housed at Madison from voting locally. The suit says the local clerk’s office then notified staff at Madison that patients would have to register to vote elsewhere.

In addition to Madison, there are four other institutions housing people committed due to mental illness: Evansville State Hospital, Larue Carter State Hospital in Indianapolis, Logansport State Hospital, and Richmond State Hospital. The facilities have a capacity of 850 people and currently house 647, the suit says, most of who have been committed for more than a year.

The suit filed in the New Albany Division of the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Indiana is Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission, Patricia Featherston, et al., v. Indiana Secretary of State, et al., 4:16-cv-29.

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