- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The conditions of John Hinckley Jr.’s full-time release from a psychiatric hospital after a three-decade long commitment are a laundry list of dos and don’ts meant to help him assimilate into society — he can’t own a gun, he must work or volunteer three days a week, and he can’t have any overnight guests while staying alone at his mother’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia.

But one privilege that won’t be curtailed any longer is his right to vote — meaning that come November, the only living man to have shot a U.S. president could register to be among the millions of Americans eligible to cast a ballot in the presidential election.

Prior attempts to vote haven’t gone so well for Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin. Mr. Hinckley tried to register to vote in Washington, D.C., at least three times during his commitment at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he was sent for mental health treatment after he shot and injured Reagan and three other men in 1981.

The D.C. Board of Elections denied his repeated attempts to register in the 1980s and 1990s, and a D.C. Superior Court judge upheld the board’s decision in 1992, ruling that Mr. Hinckley could not establish legal residency in the District because he was involuntarily confined to a mental hospital.

But pending release from the facility, Mr. Hinckley plans to establish residency in Virginia, and as long as he meets the commonwealth’s residency requirements, the 61-year-old should be eligible to vote on Nov. 8, said Mr. Hinckley’s longtime attorney Barry W. Levine.

“Surely nothing about this case will keep that from happening,” Mr. Levine said. “I suspect he’ll register to vote.”

SEE ALSO: John Hinckley, Reagan shooter, can leave hospital to live in Virginia: Judge

Virginia restricts the right to vote for individuals deemed mentally incompetent by a court and felons who have not had their right restored by the governor. Mr. Hinckley is neither — despite being found not guilty by reason of insanity of the 1981 shooting.

The restoration of voting rights for felons has become a contentious issue this year in Virginia.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised to sign individual orders one by one to grant the right to ex-offenders who have served their sentences and completed probation after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the governor didn’t have the authority to restore the right en masse.

But because he was never convicted of a felony, Mr. Hinckley has never had his right to vote revoked on those grounds.

“He was, in the plainest words, found not guilty,” Mr. Levine said. “Now he was found not guilty on a mental health defense but he was acquitted.”

Regarding the matter of mental competency, the attorney said it was never at issue in Mr. Hinckley’s case.

SEE ALSO: Woodrow Wilson Center, D.C. think tank, rejects charges of helping spur Turkish coup

“Unlike sanity, competency is the ability to understand the charges against you and to cooperate with counsel in the defense,” Mr. Levine said. “He’s never been deemed incompetent.”

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ruled last month that Mr. Hinckley could leave St. Elizabeths as soon as Aug. 5 to begin living full time at his 90-year-old mother’s home.

As of Tuesday, Mr. Levine said his client remains at the facility while several administrative tasks are resolved. An official departure date has not been confirmed.

Mr. Hinckley was sent to St. Elizabeths after the shooting, which he carried out in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster, to be treated for depression and a psychotic disorder.

During the last 10 years, his progress has led doctors to permit him to leave the hospital for multiple days to visit his family at least 80 times.

Throughout his time at the hospital, it doesn’t appear Mr. Hinckley has ever had the opportunity to vote.

While D.C. law indicates a person admitted or committed to a facility for mental health treatment retains the right to vote unless a court has specifically declared that person mentally incompetent, the D.C. Board of Elections denied Mr. Hinckley’s efforts to register to vote in the 1984, 1986 and 1990 city elections with the registrar ruling that he was not qualified to do so because he was an unwilling resident of the District. The closest he ever came appears to be in the 1990 elections, when according to a report published in The Washington Times, Mr. Hinckley was mistakenly issued a voter registration card but had it revoked after he requested an absentee ballot and “mailed in a Democratic voter registration from St. Elizabeths Hospital.”

Mr. Hinckley had previously lamented not being able to obtain an absentee ballot from Colorado, where his parents lived, in a letter sent to the Washington Post in 1984.

“In the past two years I have become much more politically aware and I can now see what’s going on in this country. But I can’t speak out or vote to try to change the system because the hospital and government won’t let me,” he wrote.

States have adopted a series of protections to prevent those with mental illness from losing their right to vote simply because they are placed in a nursing home or mental hospital, said Dania Douglas, the manager of policy and state outreach at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“The right to vote is pretty fundamental, so trying to take it away from someone based on mental incompetence, it’s a pretty big step and it usually has to be adjudicated by a court,” Ms. Douglas said. “If they can indicate they want to vote and understand the process, it’s really important to allow them to be able to.”

Mr. Hinckley’s former attorney David Dupree, who represented him in a legal case challenging the board’s 1990 decision, said in an interview that the city’s arguments against allowing him to vote centered on residency not mental competency.

“The only place he had a connection with was the District of Columbia but they determined because he was not placed there under his own volition that he could not establish residency,” Mr. Dupree said. “If they said he wasn’t a resident of the District, where was he a resident of? That was the issue to me.”

D.C. Board of Elections spokeswoman Margarita Mikhaylova confirmed there is no current voter record on file for Mr. Hinckley.

Virginia Department of Elections spokesman Martin Mash said the agency does not confirm or publicly release individuals’ voter registration status. But according to Mr. Levine, Mr. Hinckley has not established residency in Virginia yet so it is unlikely he would have been registered to vote there.

Virginia law does not explicitly address commitment to a mental hospital — state law only indicates that “no person adjudicated to be mentally incompetent shall be qualified to vote until his competency has been re-established.”

A relatively small number of voters are disqualified from voting each year in Virginia as a result of mental incompetence rulings by a court.

According to the Virginia Department of Elections’ last annual maintenance report, 483 voters had registrations canceled between July 2014 and June 2015 after a mentally incapacitated adjudication was reported. During the same period, 6,428 voters had registrations canceled after felony convictions were reported.

While some states take away the right to vote from individuals living under guardianship, Ms. Douglas said she was not aware of any state laws that would prevent a person from voting based on a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

As long as Mr. Hinckley meets the requirements and registers by the state’s deadline of Oct. 17, Mr. Mash said he would be able to cast a ballot in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Of course, if Mr. Hinckley were to vote in the election, it’s unclear whether he might throw support behind Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Republican nominee Donald Trump or a third-party candidate.

A 1990 Washington Times article states Mr. Hinckley mailed in a Democratic registration to the D.C. Board of Elections, but Mr. Hinckley is barred from speaking to the media and so hasn’t been able to publicly discuss party affiliations or thoughts on the current contentious election. Mr. Levine said the subject hasn’t come up with his client.

“We haven’t discussed his politics in that regard or whether he has an interest,” Mr. Levine said. “I would suspect every American has an interest in this election.”

He noted that although Mr. Hinckley shot a Republican president, his actions had nothing to do with Reagan’s politics and instead were motivated by his mental illness and a desire to impress an actress.

“No aspect of John’s crime had anything to do with politics,” Mr. Levine said. “To understand what happened here is to understand it had nothing to do with Ronald Reagan or a political point of view.”

But if Mr. Hinckley were to cast a ballot, he might want to do some research on where the candidates stand, not only on immigration, Obamacare, or the economy but also on the topic of his own freedom.

The day the order approving Mr. Hinckley’s full-time leave from the hospital was granted, Mr. Trump told reporters he didn’t think Mr. Hinckley should have ever been freed.

Judge Friedman, who ruled that Mr. Hinckley is no longer a danger and could be granted convalescent leave, was appointed to the bench by former President Bill Clinton.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide