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Professor Nina Kohn in TIME: A Perfect Storm of Disenfranchisement in Nursing Homes

Posted on Tuesday 10/13/2020
Nina Kohn

Nursing Home Residents Struggle to Vote Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

(TIME | Oct. 13, 2020) Ivan Lakos was born in Hungary and came to the United States in 1951 as a displaced person after World War II. He became a citizen after about five years and has voted consistently ever since. But this year, with COVID-19 cases again on the rise in the U.S., the 96-year-old worried whether he’d be able to continue that tradition.

Lakos lives in a skilled nursing home at the Carol Woods Retirement Community in North Carolina, which is home to roughly 500 residents and usually hosts its own polling place with volunteers on hand to help residents fill out ballots and navigate voting machines. But this year, that isn’t an option for him. To protect against COVID-19, the facility has restricted its activities and is currently banning visitors inside the buildings. For Lakos—and roughly 2.2 million other people like him who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across the country—that presents a significant barrier to enfranchisement.

“We’re really concerned about folks who are in nursing homes and residential facilities,” says Michelle Bishop, voting rights specialist at the National Disability Rights Network. “A lot of the ways that we relied on getting the ballot to people who lived in nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been eliminated by the pandemic: ...

... In Louisiana and North Carolina, where Lakos lives, state laws prevent residential care facility workers from helping with ballots at all. Kohn at Syracuse says this goes against the Voting Rights Act, but when a North Carolina resident sued the state over the issue this summer, a federal court found only that voter’s rights had been violated and that the ban on assistance could continue.

Even in places where staff can assist, plenty of challenges remain. Many nursing home residents have some level of memory loss or mental impairment, and while this does not mean they lose their right to vote, it may cause staff to make arbitrary judgments about who gets to vote. Some states also bar facility staff from answering questions about candidates’ platforms to avoid influencing residents, and others require an official witness in an attempt to target voter fraud that largely does not exist.

“When states create procedural barriers to voting, many people aren’t able to comply. And nursing home residents and long term care residents more broadly, are populations of people who are often not going to be able to clear those hurdles,” says Kohn. “It really is a perfect storm for disenfranchising nursing home residents" ...

Read the full article.