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COVID-19 Threatens Voting for Nursing Home Residents

Many states have relaxed restrictions on voting by mail, including absentee voting, to make casting a ballot easier and safer. But in nursing homes, even voting this way is expected to be muddied by the pandemic. That’s because volunteers and election officials who would normally visit with residents in the fall to do voter education and to answer questions may not be able to enter many long-term care facilities this year.

“The nursing home staff will have to do all of it this year,” says Mairead Painter, who works in Connecticut as a long-term care ombudsman, part of a national network of officials who help nursing home residents and their loved ones work through issues.

Sondra Norder, president and CEO of the St. Paul Elder Services nursing home and assisted living facilities in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, says on-site social workers will help residents cast their absentee ballots in the absence of election officials. Staffers can read ballots to applicants who need assistance, but they won’t be able to answer questions about candidates’ platforms because the state doesn’t want them to potentially influence residents’ votes.

“Previously, election officials went resident to resident to help them fill out their ballots, collected them and brought them to the clerk’s office,” she says.

Nursing homes that accept Medicare and Medicaid payments have a legal responsibility to assist residents with voting, but the degree to which they can assist them varies. North Carolina and Louisiana, for instance, have laws that prohibit nursing home staffers from helping residents cast their ballots. In North Carolina, residents must call in a “multi-partisan assistance team” from their local election office — a tall order this year given nursing homes’ visitor restrictions.

“It’s a ridiculous remedy, and it causes more problems than it solves,” says Butzner, who is assembling three-ring binders with candidates’ platforms and voter information to share with facilities to keep their residents informed.

Even in states where workers are allowed to help residents, nursing home staff have been stretched thin by added safety and sanitation responsibilities. “It is questionable whether nursing homes, already understaffed before COVID, will be able to devote the necessary staff time and attention to voting,” says Robyn Grant, director of public policy and advocacy at the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care.

‘This is so confusing to everybody’

Navigating the tapestry of state and local voting laws is difficult enough for long-term care facilities in normal times. Each state has its own rules for how to cast absentee and mail-in ballots. And many have laws about whether friends, family members or facility staffers can help residents vote.

In some states election officials have been barred from entering nursing homes. The Wisconsin Elections Commission banned voting deputies from entering facilities in March. And in Tennessee, an obscure law prevents nursing home residents from acquiring an absentee ballot if they are registered to vote in the same county where their nursing home is located. Only residents who are registered in another county can get a ballot.

“This is so confusing to everybody,” says Martin Penny, associate state director for advocacy at AARP Tennessee, who says the law means that many of the state’s nursing home residents will be unable to vote via absentee ballot.

Kohn says these issues are particularly problematic for a population of voters who aren’t typically on social media and often find it difficult to advocate for themselves. She says long-standing disenfranchisement and ballot-access issues in nursing homes are being laid to bare by the pandemic.

“Their institutionalization plus their underlying health conditions makes it very hard to participate in our national dialogues and discussion,” Kohn says. “This is a group, perhaps more than any other, that needs the vote to defend their interests.”

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