Stephen Lopate was just a boy when he first mentioned he wanted to vote someday in a presidential election.
It was 2008, and he told his mother he liked Hillary Clinton because she was a smart woman.
Years later, when he turned 18, Lopate's mother sought a court guardianship of her severely autistic son so that she could oversee his medical affairs and other legal matters.
FOR THE RECORD:
Disability voting: An article in the May 22 California section about a federal investigation into how California decides to strip people under limited conservatorships of the right to vote incorrectly said that an attorney for a disability rights group persuaded Stephen Lopate's court-appointed lawyer and a judge overseeing Lopate's case to reconsider and allow Lopate to keep his right to vote. Although the court-appointed attorney recommended that Lopate lose his right to vote, the judge had not made a ruling on the matter. After the court-appointed attorney changed his recommendation, the judge allowed Lopate to keep his right to vote. —
But she and Lopate were horrified and confused when they discovered that the move would result in her son being stripped of his right to vote.
"I have always made sure … that he knows his opinion matters," said Lopate's mother, Teresa Thompson. "It was just awful."
Thompson complained to a local disability rights group in Los Angeles, setting off a chain of events that led this week to federal authorities announcing they are investigating allegations that California has systematically and illegally denied intellectually disabled residents such as Lopate the right to vote.
The group, the Disability and Abuse Project, filed a complaint last year with the U.S. Department of Justice contending that the Los Angeles County Superior Court has wrongly stripped people under limited conservatorships of the right to vote if they could not fill out a voter registration affidavit.
Nora J. Baladerian, the group's executive director, said the issue impacts some of society's most vulnerable citizens, including people with cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder and traumatic brain injury, among other intellectual disabilities.
"Naïve me. I thought in the courtroom the law was followed," Baladerian said. "It wasn't so. The rights of individuals with disabilities were not being upheld in court."
It is unclear how many people under conservatorship have their right to vote taken away each year. A spokesman for the county's Registrar of Voters said 123 voters had their registrations canceled since January 2014 for "mental incompetence."
A lawyer with Baladerian's group conducted a review of 61 conservatorship cases involving adults with developmental disabilities in L.A. County and found that nearly 90% of the people had been disqualified from voting, according to the group's complaint.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court said court officials have not yet received a copy of the complaint and would respond to the Department of Justice once they do.
Investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice in Sacramento have requested records from the state, including those that would show the number of people disqualified from voting in each county and an explanation of policies for disqualifying people under limited conservatorship from voting.
The Judicial Council, which oversees courts in California, will provide the documents, according to council spokesman Peter Allen.
"The view here is that the Chief [Justice] and Judicial Council are committed to the civil rights of all Californians," Allen said in a statement.
Michael Waterstone, a Loyola Law School professor, said people with physical and mental or intellectual disabilities have long suffered discrimination when it comes to voting. He said they continue to encounter obstacles that include inaccessible polling places and conservatorship laws that hastily or automatically deem them unfit to cast a ballot.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities are afforded the right to receive assistance filling out voter registration forms and while voting, Waterstone said. A requirement to successfully fill out the form or be denied the right to vote would violate the Voting Rights Act, he said.
"It is basically a literacy test," he said.
Individual states are responsible for protecting the integrity of their elections and must determine who is capable of making an informed decision when casting a ballot, Waterstone said.
The decision to disqualify someone from the ballot box, especially among the disabled, should be taken seriously, he said.
"It has to be something more than 'you can't fill out a form by yourself,' or, 'someone else told us you can't fill out a form,'" he said. "You take someone's right to vote away, you're taking their ability to create change away. That's why it's such a dangerous thing to do."
The federal investigation comes as state lawmakers are weighing a proposal that would make it more difficult for judges and juries to remove the right to vote from someone under a conservatorship. The measure — Senate Bill 589 — would create a presumption that people with disabilities can vote whether under a conservatorship or not, said Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), who wrote the proposed legislation.
"A disability shouldn't mean a disenfranchisement," Block said.
The bill could come up for a vote on the Senate floor as early as Friday. Last year, lawmakers approved a measure ensuring that people — including those under conservatorship — cannot be denied the right to vote because they need the help of another person to sign a voter registration affidavit or use a mark, a cross or a signature stamp to sign it. The legislation was spurred by the work of the Disability and Abuse Project.
The group became involved in the issue after first hearing from Lopate's mother, Thompson.
Before Lopate's 18th birthday, his mother began the process of applying for a limited conservatorship over her son. Lopate is endlessly curious and observant, but has trouble talking and can sometimes become overwhelmed, his mother said.
Thompson attended a self-help clinic and was asked whether Lopate was able to fill out a voter registration form on his own. She answered no, because he needs help with anything that involves communicating.
That, she found out, meant she was essentially signing away her son's right to vote. A court-appointed attorney assigned to assist Lopate told a judge that Lopate should not be given the ability to vote.
"His attorney told me that it would be inconsistent with the concept of conservatorship for Stephen to have the right to vote," Thompson said. "I was very upset."
Lopate, who mostly communicates using a speech-generating device or by tapping on letters of a print-out keyboard, said he was disappointed when the court deemed him incapable of casting a ballot.
"The boy got angry," Lopate said, referring to himself. "Really against the law."
His mother contacted Lopate's therapist, Baladerian, who put her in contact with the Disability and Abuse Project's attorney, Tom Coleman. Coleman stepped in and convinced Lopate's attorney and the judge to reconsider. Lopate was allowed to keep his right to vote.
Lopate said he wanted to help other people who have difficulties speaking to make sure they too are able to vote.
"The mom made sure they did not take my rights away from me," Lopate said, communicating with his printed keyboard. "I am the lucky young man."
Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy, Maura Dolan and Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.