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Nina Kohn Discusses Barriers to the Ballot in Care Facilities with Huffington Post

Posted on Tuesday 7/24/2018
Nina A. Kohn

How To Bring The Ballot To Aging Americans

(Huffington Post | July 23, 2018) Kathleen Henry, 80, wants all her neighbors to vote, even if they can’t drive, read or remember as much anymore.

Soon after the former civics teacher moved to the Greenspring retirement community here in 2003, she took a leading role in running the campus’s polling place and registering voters.

Just this year, Henry said, she’s registered 72 residents as new voters. If a resident doesn’t have an up-to-date government form of identification — as is the case for 18 percent of citizens over 65 — Henry works to bring in a county official to take their picture to comply with Virginia’s voter ID law.

When Election Day rolls around, she and a small group of volunteers set up polling stations in the conference center, a short elevator ride down from the cafeteria and library. The community’s Democratic and Republican clubs post tables with candidate information just outside the voting area. Volunteers shuttle in residents from assisted-living and skilled-nursing facilities. The roughly 2,000 residents of Greenspring, average age 80, are the only voters in this precinct ...

... Access to the ballot for the 8.4 million residents of long-term care facilities nationwide is an issue of equity, said Nina Kohn, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law.

Running elections the way Greenspring does requires resources and a high degree of volunteer labor, which are more available at a facility where it costs several thousand dollars a month to live than at a nursing home funded by Medicaid, Kohn said.

“Some of these facilities couldn’t have better access,” she said. “At a high-amenity facility, access to voting might be treated as another amenity. ‘We have plays, we have good food, and you can vote here.’ But there are many other facilities that have individuals with similar needs that don’t have polling.”

The lack of ballot access at certain facilities affects specific populations. Nearly two-thirds of publicly funded nursing home residents are women, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Residents of these facilities, Kohn said, also tend to be poorer than residents of other long-term care facilities.

“We are essentially undermining access to entire interest blocs,” Kohn said.

Barriers to the Ballot

For many residents at publicly funded facilities, absentee ballots may be their only access to voting. Every state will mail an absentee ballot to voters who request one. But relying on absentee ballots brings its own challenges, Kohn said.

In some facilities, residents may not have access to information about candidates and deadlines for requesting a ballot. Ballots may be hard to read and fill out for those with disabilities.

In Louisiana and North Carolina, staff at residential facilities are banned from helping residents vote. And in states where staff can help, ethical questions arise over the independence of residents’ vote, Kohn said.

While there is no evidence of systemic voter fraud at nursing homes, Kohn said, she is concerned staff may have filled out absentee ballots without a resident’s permission and that residents may have been unduly influenced by staff. She said she has seen scattered reports of this in her research ...

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