Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Political Activism and Voter Participation by Persons with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities

Voting Rights: A Success Story From Idaho


Nancy Johansen is Chair of The Arc of Latah County, and former Chair of the University of Idaho Center on Disabilities and Human Development Advisory Committee.

The following are excerpts from letters written by two self-advocates who worked on the successful Idaho voting rights campaign:

Taxation without representation is wrong. As I remember from my history books, wars were fought over taxation without representation. – John Russell, self-advocate

The constitution says that all men are created equal, but in Idaho people with guardians are not treated as equals. They are not allowed to vote! The only other group disqualified from voting is convicted criminals! I work, I pay taxes, and follow political issues. I have the right to vote for candidates I believe will represent my needs. – Peder Johansen, Spokesman, The Self-Determination Group

On November 3, l998, 54.2% of the Idaho voters checked “yes” next to the question on the ballot that asked if they thought the state law should be changed so that people who have a guardian could vote. Because the majority of the voters said yes, people with guardians could, for the first time, legally vote in Idaho. I would like to give you a little personal history on why our family believed it was so important to change the state constitution and tell you what we and our friends did to convince the voters they should change the state constitution.

My son, Peder Johansen, age 26, has always been politically active. He understands the importance of being politically involved and working for issues he believes in. At the age of six he began attending political events with his family. Through the years Peder has volunteered as a campaign worker helping to get people elected for national, state, and local office. Peder has walked door-to-door asking people to sign petitions or vote for his candidate. He has walked in political parades, written letters to the editor, and handed out campaign literature. Soon after I announced my run for a seat on the board of county commissioners Peder, then 10, presented me with a list of names of people who had told him they could put his Mom’s campaign sign in their yard. Peder is a strong advocate for disability rights and helped convince the city to develop an inclusive community center. He has also worked with The Arc of Latah County and Mercy Housing, Idaho Inc., to secure an 811 grant to build 14 units of affordable housing for people with disabilities. Peder was very proud when he turned 18 and was able to vote for the first time. Since that first time he has never missed voting in an election.

So, imagine our shock and dismay when we learned Peder had been illegally voting because he had a guardian. No one who had been advising Peder (his parents, his physicians, his lawyer, the judge, his teachers) knew that the Idaho State Constitution states that anyone who has a guardian, even a limited guardian, is not allowed to vote. We learned about this dreadful law in May 1997 during a consumer advisory committee meeting for the Idaho Center on Disabilities and Human Development. One of the committee members asked if it was true that people with guardians were prohibited from voting. Another committee member, Jim Baugh, the executive director of our state protection and advocacy organization, told the group that it was true, our state constitution prevented anyone with a guardian from voting. The rest of the council members had never heard of this law and everyone immediately agreed the law should be changed as soon as possible. Another committee member, State Senator Gary Schroeder, offered to sponsor a bill in the legislature to change the law.

When the consumer advisory committee had a chance to look at the actual Idaho law we discovered there were only two groups of people who were not allowed to vote in Idaho: people who have a guardian and convicted criminals! The committee members asked Jim to look at the law and advise us on the best way to go about changing it.

Jim told us he had determined the only way we could change the law was to place a constitutional amendment on the state ballot to ask the voters to vote yes or no to amending the state constitution. He told us there are two ways you can place an amendment on the ballot. One way is to gather a large number of signatures on petitions, and the other is to get the state legislature to agree to put the amendment on the ballot. We all decided it would be impossible for a small group to try to gather the needed signatures and we asked Senator Schroeder to sponsor a resolution in the next legislative session.

At the beginning of the 1998 legislative session a constitutional amendment was drafted. Senator Schroeder submitted this resolution to the Senate for a vote and asked Representative Debbie Field to present the resolution to the House. The resolution passed, allowing it to be placed on the November 3, 1998 election ballot.

During the spring and summer of 1998 the Consortium for Idahonians with Disabilities, an organization whose membership includes all of the disability advocacy organizations in the state, held several meetings to come up with a good plan for getting the information out to the public. Representatives from disability advocacy organizations were asked to contact their members and write articles for their newsletters explaining the purpose of the constitutional amendment. In late October, fliers were distributed to homes and yard signs went up. Supporters of the amendment wrote letters to the editor urging people to vote yes.

On November 3, 1998 the statewide election was held and 54.2% of the voters voted yes to amend Section 3, Article IV of the Constitution of the State of Idaho. People who have a guardian now have the right to vote.

Our coalition of disability advocates was able to successfully amend the Idaho State Constitution because all of our members were passionate in their belief that the current law was wrong. The advocates worked cooperatively, and everyone followed through with their assigned tasks. We had researched the current law and had developed a list of reasons why changing the constitution was the right thing to do. We sought and received assistance from all of our state disability advocacy organizations and we recognized the need to keep the campaign bi-partisan. Most importantly, self-advocates and family members had leadership roles.

And it is very important to recognize the important role Senator Schroeder played in sponsoring and supporting our constitutional amendment. He is deeply committed to supporting disability rights issues and was able to convince his fellow legislators it was wrong to deny voting rights to a person just because they have a guardian.

Since we have changed our state constitution we have learned there are many states that still deny voting rights to people who have guardians. To those of you who live in one of these states we encourage you to change the law as we did. You do not need a lot of money to do this. All you need is a dedicated group of people who are willing to work together to change the unjust law. Good luck to all of you!