What is Democracy? (70): One Intellectually Disabled Man, One Intellectually Disabled Vote?

“One man, one vote” is a basic rule of democracy. However, most democracies make some exceptions: children, some types of criminals and people with certain intellectual disabilities often don’t get to vote. Whereas criminals are supposed to have forfeited their right to vote on account of their actions, children and adults with intellectual disabilities are believed to lack the “capacity to vote”. Let’s focus on the latter category. Just recently, the UN Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities has ruled that Hungary’s restriction on the right to vote for people with intellectual disabilities violates international human rights law. However, Hungary is hardly alone in imposing such restrictions.

The “capacity to vote” is a vague concept. Presumably it means having the capacity to act like a normal citizen, to process information and to make informed choices based on this information. Neither children nor the severely mentally handicapped are believed to have this capacity. In law, the severely mentally handicapped are often even equated to children, in the sense that they require legal guardians. Allowing them to vote would, some argue, undermine the quality of the outcomes of elections. The very definition of mental handicap is the inability to process often highly complex social and political information and to make rational choices based on such information. Not only would the intellectually disabled make uninformed choices, but their guardians are likely to influence them. In both cases, democracy would suffer. At least, that’s how the story goes.

You can see one obvious problem with this story: what about merely “stupid people”? Shouldn’t we also exclude those from the right to vote? The same reasons could be said to apply. Indeed, there isn’t always a clear distinction between low IQ and mental handicap. Seems like a possible slippery slope to me. I’m tempted by this: let’s include everyone. Let children vote (see here for a decent argument). And criminals as well. After all, democracy isn’t just about the quality of political decisions (although it is about that, obviously, and one can make a strong case that democracies do deliver quality decisions on average). Democracy is also about treating everyone as an equal. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget immigrants.

More posts in this series here.


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