Restoring rights: A disabled Suffolk man fights for the ability to vote this November

10 On Your Side

SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Suffolk resident Travis Marlowe loves Johnny Cash and politics. When he’s not singing “Ring of Fire” or watching NASCAR, he’s talking to those around him about the upcoming election.

At 20 years old, this should be his first chance to cast a ballot in a presidential election — but he can’t.

Travis Marlowe has autism. Two years ago, a Suffolk judge granted his parents full guardianship. The proceeding essentially stripped Travis Marlowe of all his rights, including the right to vote.

His family says he knows more about politics than they do.

“You need to do your research just to figure out what that candidate wants to do; if they want to raise taxes, lower taxes,” explained Travis Marlowe during a visit from 10 On Your Side.

“He watches the news. He’ll pick up his phone and starts googling different things about the presidents,” his mom Elizabeth Marlowe added.

When Travis Marlowe was younger, medical professionals advised his parents to apply for guardianship when he turned 18. At the time, his parents said they thought it was a good idea. They wanted to help their son with complicated medical and financial decisions. The judge granted full guardianship.

“It went too far I think,” said Elizabeth Marlowe.  

Elizabeth Marlowe said only later did she and her husband understand what full guardianship meant. The courts had declared Travis Marlowe “incapacitated.” In the stroke of a pen, his rights were taken away. That’s not what his parents wanted.

“It hurt, it hurt in my heart, you know, because I felt like I failed him for doing something,” said Elizabeth Marlowe.  

Laws in 39 states including Virginia allow judges to strip voting rights from people with mental disorders.

We spoke we Colleen Miller, the executive director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia.

“Our law requires a court to place a guardianship on only as a last resort and only to the least restrictive extent necessary. But that is really not the practice. We see many courts going to full guardianship.” said Miller.

The disAbility Law Center is a nonprofit based in Richmond. They fight for people like Travis Marlowe.

“Guardianship is far and away the most restrictive action that can be taken against a person with a disability,” explained Miller. “It’s our intention to help people be able to exercise choice as much as possible.” 

DLCV educates people on those choices, like gaining power of attorney and supported decision making. These tools often achieve what families seek guardianship for without stripping the disabled person of their rights.

“It’s really fascinating how important that right to vote is to so many people with disabilities who lost that right in the guardianship proceeding. We have actually been approached by individuals who are OK with everything else about the guardianship that’s on them, except they want that ability to vote.”

Like others, Travis Marlowe wants his voting rights back.

“I want to be like everybody else, do what everybody else does,” he said.  

Court proceedings are lengthy and often costly. The Marlowes live off disability and say they don’t have the resources for a legal fight.

Trying another route, the Marlowes wrote a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and President Donald Trump, explaining their situation and asking for help.

So far, no response from either.

They also reached out to WAVY-TV 10. We’ve helped connect them with the disAbility Law Center. Lawyers say there’s likely not enough time to restore Travis Marlowe’s rights before the voter registration deadline on Oct. 13, but it’s possible for future elections.

Travis Marlowe’s family says they won’t stop until he can vote like everyone else.

“Because he’s a person. Just because he has a diagnosis it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a voice,” said Elizabeth Marlowe. “They should be heard too.” 

An estimated 1.5 million adults are under legal guardianship nationwide, according to the AARP. There is no data indicating how many have lost their right to vote.

If you have a disabled child and want to know more about your options aside from guardianship, contact the disAbility Law Center at 1-800-552-3962 or visit their website.

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