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In a 1905 Ohio case, In re South Charleston Election Contest, Leroy Pitzer was accused of being a “lunatic” or an “idiot” and thus unable to vote in a tight and contest election that ripped the town of South Charleston in half. After intense deliberations – and considering 29 different definitions of lunacy and idiocy – the court decided that something was wrong with Leroy Pitzer, but they could not figure out exactly what. They also could not determine who Pitzer voted for. Unfortunately, without his vote, the election result was a tie and the entire election was rerun.

The saga of Leroy Pitzer provides a window into the struggle over political citizenship for people who were considered to have mental disabilities. His case took place in a period where nearly every state in the country implemented voting bans against “lunatics” and “idiots” – bans that are still valid in 40 states in the country. As states moved to lift voting restrictions and usher in democracy for non- propertied white men, they pushed out those considered lacking the mental capacity to wield the important right of suffrage. My paper will show how the legal system used a “common sense” model of disability to disenfranchise people with mental disabilities, how the issue of mental status influenced the development of voting rights in the United States, and how people with mental disabilities acted as scapegoats in the messy arena of electoral politics.


2014 Law and Humanities Junior Scholar Workshop alternate selection.