Denying older adults their right to vote: the folly of burdensome absentee ballot requirements
This essay is also published in the Raleigh News & Observer. See also Kimberly Leonard's article "Keeping the mentally incompetent from voting" in The Atlantic and this short essay on the right to vote.
Among residents of long term care facilities who want to vote—and studies estimate that on average about one-third and in some facilities as many as three-quarters do vote—nearly all require an absentee ballot, but for residents in many nursing homes, state requirements for what is a valid absentee ballot mean that their vote may not count.
Nursing home residents are typically disabled to the degree they need assistance performing many of life’s basic activities of daily living such as dressing, bathing, and moving about a room. The journey from their room, to an offsite voting booth is simply an undue burden. Voting by absentee ballot is among the most common methods to enfranchise the disabled.
But absentee balloting is also one of the most common methods of voter fraud, such as stealing multiple residents’ ballots, or throwing away ballots. No studies have shown, but rumors persist, and cases accumulate, of long term care facilities being the prime venue to commit such fraud.
Nursing home residents are in the cross hairs of America’s ongoing debate over how big is the problem of voter fraud and how best to address it. Sadly, the problem is typically exaggerated and, as a result, the solutions are overdone. Residents of long term care facilities in North Carolina are now experiencing this.
North Carolina strictly forbids the employees of hospitals or long term care facilities from assisting a resident complete their absentee ballot (you can download a pdf copy of this ballot at the end of this article). This is a notable barrier because studies show that most resident require assistance reading the small font and filling in the tiny dots. North Carolina also forbids those people from serving as the required witness on a ballot.
So who can assist a resident and who can serve as a witness? “The voter’s near relative or verifiable legal guardian.”
Imagine the man who lives in a Raleigh nursing home. His family resides in New Jersey. Who will be his witness? The activities director at a Raleigh based nursing home who described this resident to me did not know the answer. The nephew would have to make a long trip.
I asked him of the requirement for a family member’s signature presents an undue burden. His reply: “Yes. It’s a hassle.”
The desire to forbid employees from proving assistance or witnessing a ballot is an extreme solution to limit the chances of voter fraud. A better solution is to bring the elections official to the nursing homes. So called “mobile polling” describes a process where elections officials go to a long term care facility, provide assistance to the residents who want to vote, and then take the completed ballots back to be counted. Studies show that it minimizes fraud, maximizes access and enhances residents’ sense of dignity and worth.
It’s the norm in Australia, Canada and just a few states in the U.S. Until it is the norm across the United States, for nursing home residents in states like North Carolina, we the people are only the people who have a family member close by and available.