Cherry Hospital, a state-run adult inpatient psychiatric facility in Goldsboro, welcomed a federally funded nonprofit organization to conduct a voter registration drive of mental patients, likely a violation of state law.

Moreover, a memo from a hospital administrator indicated the nonprofit, Disability Rights North Carolina, assisted patients in completing absentee ballots, which may have been illegal as well.

Records from the Wayne County Board of Elections obtained by Carolina Journal show 34 persons using Cherry Hospital’s address — 201 Stevens Mill Road in Goldsboro — are registered to vote. Cherry Hospital, with a resident population of more than 200, serves patients in 38 eastern North Carolina counties.

Local election board records obtained by CJ show an additional 144 registered voters with home addresses at the other two state inpatient mental hospitals in Butner and Morganton, but CJ was unable to determine if Disability Rights N.C. conducted registration drives at those hospitals.

North Carolina General Statute 163-226.3 makes it a Class I felony for anyone other than the legal guardian or close relative of a hospital or nursing home patient to apply for an absentee ballot or fill out that ballot on the patient’s behalf. The law was enacted in the 1980s to prevent the political exploitation of elderly and disabled residents of hospitals and nursing homes. The lone exception allowed is if the hospital or nursing home asks the county board of elections to bring in a multipartisan team of registrars, trained by the county, to assist the patients.

Wayne County elections board director Rosemary Blizzard told CJ she did not send a team to Cherry because “it was not requested.” She said a trained team was available and that it had made a visit to a local nursing home to assist residents.

When CJ emailed Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Henry, asking if Cherry Hospital followed the requirements of G.S. 163-226.3, she replied, “Yes.”

Registration drive

An Oct. 5 memo from Cherry Hospital clinical director Jim Mayo to hospital staff confirmed that Disability Rights helped patients with their absentee ballots. “I want to congratulate the [Health and Wellness Committee] along with Disability Rights of NC in conducting a very successful event today assisting patients complete ballots for the general election,” wrote Mayo. The Health and Wellness Committee is an organization of Cherry Hospital employees, according to DHHS’ Henry.

Of the 34 voters registered at Cherry, 21 were registered in September or October. Disability Rights senior attorney Lisa Grafstein acknowledged to CJ that her organization had met with patients at Cherry Hospital this year, offering them the opportunity to register to vote in Wayne County.

According to state voter election records, of the 21 persons recently registered, one registered as a Republican, eight registered as unaffiliated, and 12 signed up as Democrats. Grafstein acknowledged that her organization understands it is not permitted to steer a person to any particular political party.

Absentee ballot instructions

In addition to helping patients with registration forms, Disability Rights instructs patients how to request an absentee ballot. Wayne County elections official Blizzard told CJ that she has received several absentee ballot requests from Cherry Hospital.

Grafstein said the opportunity to register was offered to Cherry patients at a presentation made in a day room, a common area open to all patients. “If a patient can express the desire to register, we will work with them. Like in a regular community, there are those that watch TV and have opinions about candidates and issues,” she said.

DHHS spokeswoman Henry told CJ that Disability Rights approached Cherry Hospital and asked for permission to talk with patients about voter registration. “Disability Rights set up a table in a common area and helped people who were interested,” she said.

CJ asked Henry if other groups had been allowed to register patients to vote. “The organizers of the information session at Cherry said no one else has approached them about it,” she said.

J. Luckey Welsh, director of the Division of State Operated Healthcare Facilities, approved an updated policy directive Oct. 1 for the facilities under his supervision. “In accordance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1973, patients/residents receiving services of the facilities operated by the Division of State Operated Healthcare Facilities are to be provided the opportunity to register to vote or change voter registration information during their admission to the facility,” stated the directive.

The directive says the policy applies to all patients who are U.S. citizens and have reached the age of 18 prior to an election. It includes patients who have been adjudicated incompetent unless there is a specific court order stating that an individual’s voting rights have been revoked. Facilities are not required “to actively offer voter
registration to patients or residents who are able to safely participate in the process until such time as the patient or resident is able to safely complete the process.”

Facility requirements

Each facility is required to appoint a NVRA coordinator and notify the local election board of the coordinator’s name and contact information.

The director of the Granville County Board of Elections told CJ that 63 people using the address of 300 Veazey Road in Butner are registered to vote. That is the address for Central Regional Hospital, the new state psychiatric hospital that treats persons living in 25 central North Carolina counties. Those patients formerly were housed at Dorothea Dix in Raleigh.

Burke County Board of Elections records reveal that 81 people using the address of 1000 Sterling Street in Morganton were registered. That is the address of Broughton Hospital, the state psychiatric facility serving 37 western North Carolina counties.

Disability Rights N.C.

The roots of Disability Rights North Carolina go back to the 1970s. In order to provide legal assistance to patients of Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, in 1977 the Wake County Bar Association started a project called Legal Services for Mental Patients. The name was changed to Carolina Legal Assistance for the Mentally Handicapped and then just Carolina Legal Assistance. CLA’s goal was “to improve the quality of institutional care and service for clients confined to the psychiatric hospitals.”

In 2007, Gov. Mike Easley designated CLA as the “protection and advocacy” agency for North Carolina, and CLA became part of a national network of protection and advocacy systems mandated by federal law. In September 2007, CLA was renamed Disability Rights North Carolina, and the independent nonprofit organization became the state advocacy organization for persons with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and other disabilities.

The organization is headquartered in Raleigh and has a staff of approximately 40. In 2010 it had expenditures of $3.3 million with more than 95 percent of its revenue coming from federal grants. As part of the Help America Vote Act, state protection and advocacy organizations such as Disability Rights have received specific grants aimed at improving voting access for persons with disabilities.

Other states

Inpatient mental hospitals can house patients who have been declared by a judge to be incompetent, and who have been assigned guardians, to make their own decisions. In 1973 then-state Attorney General Robert Morgan’s office issued an opinion saying that the state constitution does not prohibit the incompetent from voting. Since then, North Carolina apparently has allowed persons judged incompetent to vote.

But that issue remains unclear to some. In the Aug. 21 memo from Disability Rights to the state-run facilities, the organization stated, “There is a misperception that individuals with guardians are not allowed to register to vote,” based on an incorrect reading of a state law. “Thus, there is no legitimate basis under state law for limiting the right to register and vote because someone has a guardian.”

North Carolina appears to be an outlier, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which calls itself “the nation’s largest grass-roots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.” NAMI publishes an online guide to state voting rights.

The guide says most states prohibit persons judged mentally incompetent from voting. While the specifics of the laws may vary, only eight states allow persons to retain the right to vote even if they have been judged incompetent and reside in a state facility: Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

North Carolina is not one of them. For North Carolina, the guide states, “A person judged ‘mentally incompetent’ by a court is disqualified from voting, unless the finding is reversed.” The NAMI guide is at odds with the current practice in North Carolina.

Sita Diel, NAMI’s director of state policy and advocacy, told CJ she was unaware that the guide was in conflict with the positions taken by Disability Rights and the state officials who oversee North Carolina psychiatric hospitals.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.