Nursing home residents endured the worst of the global pandemic. And now, weeks before the 2020 elections, analysts fear that health risks and visitor restrictions could effectively disenfranchise thousands of high-profile voters who are still locked in long-term care facilities.
“We went through hell,” said Carole Dein, a nursing home resident at Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn. “I haven’t been to my facility since March.”
At the height of the pandemic, Cobble Hill Health Center lost more residents to COVID-19 than any other nursing home in New York. Dein says that is one reason she believes her voting this year is more important than ever.
“We are at the center of what has contributed to over 200,000 people who have died,” said Dein. “I think the vote is even more important for us this year.”
Donny Tuchman, CEO of Cobble Hill Health Center, said his staff were working overtime to ensure residents received postal votes and heard their voices.
“In the past few years, representatives of the electoral committee had actually come to our building to be here so we could get residents to vote in person,” said Tuchman. “Of course that won’t happen this year. So everything will be postal voting.”
According to Tuchman, around a third of its 300 or so residents have already requested voting papers.
However, some fear that the added complexity of requesting and filling out postal ballot papers as opposed to the simplicity of the physical voting could result in a higher percentage of seniors’ votes being rejected.
John Vinton, a nursing home resident who requested his postal vote without the assistance of staff, said he felt the paperwork and subsequent instructions from election officials were too complex.
“I found the ballot very confusing and when I asked for help the advice was confusing too,” Vinton said. “I hope my ballot is counted.”
Nina Kohn, a Syracuse law professor who also lectures on law and aging at Yale University, fears that thousands of long-term care facilities may need help managing a voting process complicated by the pandemic.
“The more complex the procedures for voting and returning a ballot, the more likely this population will be disenfranchised,” said Kohn. “I think we should be very concerned that many residents of nursing homes and assisted dormitories are unable to choose.”
In 2016, the CDC estimated that more than 1.3 million nursing home residents lived in more than 15,000 facilities in the United States. According to federal law, nursing home workers must help facilitate voting for disabled and elderly residents.
Michael Balboni, director of the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association, said nursing homes take this responsibility seriously, but said staff should only be careful to help obtain and fill out ballot papers without the votes themselves to influence.
“It has to be absolutely impartial,” said Balboni. “There can be no influence, neither perceived nor real, in any form.”
But Kohn said cases of nursing home staff unduly influencing residents’ voting choices are not common. The bigger concern, she says, is not helping residents enough and leaving seniors without the resources necessary to cast voters.
“Fraud cases are gone,” said Kohn.
Carlene Dalton, President of the Resident Council at Cobble Hill Health Center, praised the nursing home staff for helping steer a complex voting process. But she also expressed concern about whether city and state election officials would be up to the task of running an election with so many applicants via email. Cobble Hill Health Center has already had to discard dozens of postal ballot papers sent to residents because those ballots were part of a larger pile of address and name mix-ups.
“We voted last week and they noticed the names were on the ballot, but the envelopes were mistaken for the names of other residents,” Dalton said.
The city says the bug will be fixed and new ballots will be sent out. Dalton says she’s still waiting for hers. When she gets it, she plans to vote on her two most important issues: healthcare and economics.
“A lot of people are unemployed,” she said. “Unemployment has ended for a lot of people who are unemployed, so people are fighting outside. I hate to see my family fighting out there.”