Has Britney Spears really been judged incompetent to vote?

#FreeBritney backers claim the pop star is the victim of laws more commonly used for people in comas

#FreeBritney: Britney Spears at a film premiere in Hollywood last year. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP via Getty

#FreeBritney: Britney Spears at a film premiere in Hollywood last year. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP via Getty

 

Britney Spears is trapped in a controlling and abusive legal arrangement, argue members of the #FreeBritney movement – one that might be affecting her civil rights even to the point of barring her from taking part in US elections.

Reporters and fans such as Diet Prada, a pop-culture critic on Instagram, say that despite Spears’s being capable of maintaining a singing career that earns millions of dollars a year, she is the subject of a conservatorship and therefore still needs permission to spend her own money, drive a car, leave her home, hire her own lawyer and possibly even vote.

Conservatorships are designed for people who cannot take care of themselves; often, they are in comas or have severe mental illness, for example. A court-approved guardian therefore takes control of the conservatee’s finances and healthcare decisions.

Although the 38-year-old singer is rarely overtly political, in late March she posted an Instagram message that said, “We will feed each other, re-distribute wealth, strike” – further captioned with the red-rose emojis favoured by the Democratic Socialists of America. “Comrade Britney knows: together we can build a better world,” the DSA tweeted in response, “because capitalism is Toxic”.

Spears has been under a conservatorship since 2008; she had started to behave erratically a year earlier, after her divorce from Kevin Federline, as part of which she lost custody of their children. The singer was put in psychiatric care after she refused to surrender the couple’s two sons during a stand-off with police.

The details of Spears’ conservatorship are confidential (calls and messages to her manager, talent agency, court-appointed lawyer and attorney all went unreturned), but it’s possible she has joined the thousands of Americans who are disenfranchised each year due to “incompetence” laws.

The singer’s circumstances are very different from those of most conservatees. Since 2008 she has released a series of albums and held a $140m Las Vegas residency

Spears’s defenders point out that the singer’s circumstances are very different from those of most conservatees. Since 2008 she has released a series of albums, held a $140 million, or €120 million, Las Vegas residency, launched fashion and fragrance products and been a judge on the US version of The X Factor.

Miley Cyrus and Rose McGowan are among her supporters; they say the conservatorship should end, and are concerned that the singer might be creating a fortune for her conservators while being deprived of her rights as an individual.

Spear’s finances are overseen by her father, Jamie Spears; he also used to be her conservator, but he stepped down last year; he was replaced by the singer’s care manager, Jodi Montgomery. The pair, who have financial and legal control of the singer, receive $1.1 million in fees a year for their services, according to Forbes magazine.

Last month, according to legal documents obtained by the Blast, Spears’s mother, Lynn Spears, asked a court to rule that she should receive “special notice” of her daughter’s financial activity in “all matters” relating to her daughter’s trust; this would allow her to act as a watchdog against alleged abuse by her father and conservator.

#FreeBritney: signs brought by Britney Spears fans gathered outside a Los Angeles courthouse on the day of a status hearing for the singer’s conservatorship case, in May last year. Photograph: Andrew Cullen/New York Times
#FreeBritney: signs brought by Britney Spears fans gathered outside a Los Angeles courthouse on the day of a status hearing for the singer’s conservatorship case, in May last year. Photograph: Andrew Cullen/New York Times

When Spears was placed under a conservatorship she would have been presumed to be ineligible to vote, but in 2016 California law changed. Now the conservatee is assumed to be competent unless it’s proved to a court that she cannot communicate her desire to vote, which is the only standard she must meet.

In other jurisdictions, however, the conservatee must understand the “nature and effect” of voting. According to Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who helped develop that standard, that diagnosis boils down to three questions: what’s the purpose of an election? What’s the purpose of voting? And what’s the effect of voting?

“This is a very simple screen,” says Appelbaum. “So you have to be quite impaired, and only a very small proportion of people will fail something like this.” But the numbers may not be so insignificant, says Michelle Bishop, the voter-access and -engagement manager for the National Disability Rights Network, a US nonprofit that aims to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

“It can be hard to track, which really scares me,” she says. According to one source, the latest Election Administration and Voting Survey (PDF), 9,569 people were removed from American voting rolls for mental incompetence in 2018. But Bishop points out that election administrations would likely have access to that information only if they requested it from the judicial system. “We’re concerned that those numbers may not really be accurate,” she says.

The #FreeBritney movement has been building momentum: more than 130,000 people have successfully petitioned the White House to get involved

More fundamentally, though, Bishop argues that people with disabilities should be held to the same standards as everyone else. “All you have to be able to do is demonstrate your desire to vote,” she says. “You don’t have to prove you understand how our government works. You don’t have to say who you want to vote for and provide really good reasons for why you made that decision.” She laughs. “Quite frankly, we don’t all have good reasons.”

The #FreeBritney movement has been building momentum: more than 130,000 people have successfully petitioned the White House to get involved. Their plea says: “We need this petition so that Britney can hire her own lawyer and live a normal life as a 38 year old woman with two kids. She has tried over the years to fight, attempts were shut down. Please look into this case. Every American deserves civil liberties.” And more than 245,000 people have signed a change.org petition to grant Spears the right to appoint her own lawyer.

Under California law, Britney Spears’s conservatorship is reviewed yearly or every two years – one took places in May last year – although she could petition the court at any time to restore her voting rights. It may just be a pop-music trope, but Diet Prada points out that pushing against a controlling force is a theme through many of Spears’s hits. “I don’t need permission, make my own decisions,” she sings in one of her best known, from 2004. “That’s my prerogative.” – Guardian, agencies

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