By Gregory Phillips
Jimmy Green's stepdaughter had never voted before. The 57-year-old is mentally disabled, and Green said she doesn't understand the concept of casting a ballot.
But this week, she called her parents to say she had voted for President Obama. The care home in Fayetteville where she lives registered its residents to vote and drove them to the polls, Green said.
"My concern is that somebody told her who to vote for," he said. "She didn't even know there's two different parties."
Complaints of uncomprehending voters being ferried to cast ballots surface every election. And in a presidential race as close as this year's, with huge levels of early voting, any perceived irregularity is falling under intense scrutiny.
But federal and state laws are very clear - there is no competency test for voting.
"The law specifically says that anyone with a disability is allowed to have assistance from anyone that they choose," said Terri Robertson, director of the Cumberland County Board of Elections. "As long as they can communicate to us in some way that they need assistance and who they wish to have assistance from, the law allows it."
In 2010, Gary Bartlett, the state elections director, issued a memo to county boards clarifying the law.
"In the absence of evidence of systematic fraud," Bartlett wrote, "the presumption should work in favor of the opportunity of the voter to vote."
Don Talbot said he saw vans full of mentally disabled voters brought to the polls time and again during his years as a former precinct chief in Cumberland County. He said it often appeared they had little input in completing the ballot.
"The audacity of it to me, it is shameful, but both parties do it," said Talbot, a former Fayetteville city councilman. "When you haul people that are not competent and you do their voting for them, that's fraud."
Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina, a voter rights group, said he hears protests about the opposite problem.
"We also get complaints from people who want to provide assistance being told they're not allowed to give it," he said. "They go overboard on the other direction."
It can be hard for observers to tell how much assistance a voter is getting, said Lisa Grafstein, a lawyer for the Disability Rights N.C. advocacy group.
"It is tough, because you can't really get in the middle of that conversation and know what was going on there," she said. "We can't put a block on a whole host of people voting because we suspect there might be some incidental instances of exploitation ... . I don't think the law can really draw a black line like that."
When exploitation does occur, the focus should be on the people manipulating the voters rather than stripping the rights of the disabled, Grafstein said. She likened their situation to that of an elderly person scammed over the phone.
"We don't take their phone away," she said. "We don't punish them for having been manipulated."
Robertson said she's heard general complaints this year but no specific allegations of voter exploitation. Incidents can be reported to the Board of Elections at 678-7733.
Jimmy Green has not lodged an official complaint about his stepdaughter being escorted to the polls. He said he fears reprisals against her from the care home.
"I'm not holding up for either party here in this case," he said, "but it's just not right."
Bartlett's memo acknowledged there could be instances when a voter who is not capable of communicating his identity or voting preference is permitted to vote.
"That consequence is preferable to the conflicting consequence of inappropriately disenfranchising voters merely because of their communications shortcomings," Bartlett wrote. "In the absence of systematic fraud, this imperfect outcome is simply one with which we must live."
Democrats are being exploited to vote for Obama.