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Why Too Many Older Adults Face Voting Obstacles

Disabled access is still an issue, and voter ID laws may disenfranchise more


Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

As Americans head for the polls on Tuesday, those who are older may be underrepresented, due to numerous voting obstacles — from lack of transportation to polling sites not accommodating those with disabilities to onerous new voter identification requirements.

It may be more difficult for people who no longer drive to get to the polls, for example, or they may have trouble walking and standing.

“One of the big issues for at least some elderly voters is mobility even if it’s possible for them to travel to the polls on election day,” says Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University professor who specializes in elections, “especially if that means the prospect of waiting in line for some unknown period of time.”

Tokaji points to one group with a unique problem: those who live in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. “The question will arise whether [residents] have the [cognitive] capacity to vote, and if there’s some uncertainty, who winds up being the decider?” he says. “It could be decided by the health care provider, for better or worse.”

Is Absentee Voting the Answer?

Mobility challenges are one of many reasons that older voters are more likely to rely on absentee voting. That trend is rapidly accelerating as states make mail-in voting easier and as the population ages.

That would seem like a good alternative. But the absentee voting pipeline is full of holes, according to political scientist Charles Stewart of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Often [birth certificates] are not on a central computer and can only be obtained from a county clerk at the voter’s birthplace, which could be far away.

In a 2010 article, “Losing Votes by Mail,” published in the New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, Stewart wrote: “…the number of potentially lost ballots through the vote-by-mail channel is significant, especially compared to estimates that focus on in-person voting.”

“Lost” ballots include those that aren’t sent to the voter because his or her request isn’t received; ones that are never received by the voter after a request; ballots not completed because of problems with voter registration; those not completed accurately (such as missing a signature); those returned after the deadline and ballots that aren’t received and counted properly.

According to Stewart’s estimate — which he notes is based on incomplete data — 22 percent of potential mail-in votes in 2008 were “lost,” more than five times the  rate for all votes (4 percent).

Rules Around Mail Ballots

States vary widely on absentee voting rules. Although 27 states allow everyone to vote absentee, 21 require an “excused absence,” such as being overseas in the military or being disabled. In six states, being older (over 60 or 65, depending on the state) is a valid excuse.

“There are a growing number of restrictions around casting absentee ballots,” says Jennifer Clark, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Some states require a copy of a photo ID, and some states are requiring that you have [the ballot] witnessed or notarized. Another thing that has made a difference to older people and voters who are less mobile or who live in a rural area is new restrictions on collection of absentee ballots. In some states, you could have someone go to a nursing home or to a rural area and collect the 10 absentee ballots and drive in to drop them off. There are states that have made restrictions on that, and that affects people who are more isolated.”

Those restrictions may include limiting the number of ballots someone can deliver or limiting the ballot delivery to family members.

Pride in ‘Showing Up’ to the Polls

Even when offered absentee ballots, many older Americans prefer voting in person.

As a plaintiff’s counsel in a lawsuit challenging strict voter ID laws in Texas, Clark heard testimony from many older voters. “Some said they took a lot of pride in being part of the community and showing up to vote. For some, they were concerned, ‘If I put something in the mail, how do I know it’s getting to the right person and getting counted? If I show up in person, I feel confident the ballot has been received.’ For others, getting an absentee ballot required a decent amount of advance planning.”

Voting Obstacles Include Inaccessible Polling Sites

Even if you do show up at the polls, there’s no guarantee you can vote if you have disabilities. A recent Pew Research Center report found that an estimated 35.4 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote Nov. 8, and that group is disproportionately older. But despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, many polling stations remain inaccessible, with stairs to climb, doorways too narrow for wheelchairs and lack of handicapped parking spots.

A 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that “studies have shown that with every 10 years after reaching the age of 65, the risk of losing mobility doubles. In many ways, lack of mobility and other types of impairments can diminish seniors’ ability to vote without some assistance or accommodation.”

In fact, a 2013 GAO report found that only 27 percent of polling sites nationally were fully accessible, from parking to the voting booth — up from 16 percent in 2000, but still a long ways to go. The report identified other barriers for some with disabilities, such as inaccessible machines.

“We’ve made progress, but progress has been slow,” says Michelle Bishop, a voting rights specialist with the National Disability Rights Network. “Barriers that people think are a thing of the past are still there.”

Voter ID Laws Hit Older People

Making matters more challenging for older voters in some states are tough new voter ID requirements. Although court challenges have reversed some of the stiffest ones, 14 states have new voter ID laws, and their impact is unknown.

A 2006 survey (the most recent available) by the Brennan Center found that while 11 percent of voters overall lacked current photo IDs, 18 percent of older voters lacked them — amounting to 6 million voters at that time.

One reason: Many older voters either no longer drive and their licenses have expired or they never drove.

“These are people who have voted their entire lives,” says Dora Rose, senior director of civic engagement for the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund. “They end up in a nightmare odyssey filled with physical and bureaucratic impediments.”

For example, some states require a certified copy of a birth certificate to register to vote. Often, these records are not on a central computer and can only be obtained from a county clerk at the voter’s birthplace, which could be far away.

“This can lead to enormous expenditures in travel, which amount to an unconstitutional poll tax,” says Rose. “When they do manage to get the birth certificates, they might contain minor clerical areas, or their names have changed. When the names don’t match, they are not accepted by the government office charged with issuing it.” This is especially troublesome for married women who have taken their husband’s last name, which can then lead to another search for their original marriage certificates.

Documents May Not Even Exist

Clark adds that although many older people can muster a ride to the polls, getting transportation to far-off places to obtain their birth certificates is another matter.

“Plus, if you’re an older person of color and born in the south, you might not even have a birth certificate if you were born at home,” says Rich Fiesta, executive director of the labor-supported Alliance for Retired Americans. Before Medicare became law, many hospitals were segregated and homebirths were common for African-Americans, he adds.

“The irony is in spite of all this, older voters still vote more than others,” says Fiesta, “but these laws have a way of disenfranchising older people and people of color and people who are low income.”

Help With Rides, Understanding New Laws

Many voting advocates are working to overcome these challenges.

Civic organizations, unions, religious congregations and candidate campaigns offer older people rides to the polls on Election Day. The website Carpoolvote.com links volunteer drivers to those needing rides. (These could be particularly useful for Philadelphia-area residents if their Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority buses, subways and trolleys remain shut due to the workers’ strike.)

Local League of Women Voters groups can assist voters encountering problems. And Vote.org and the Brennan Center have user-friendly state-specific guides to voter ID laws and early voting rules.

The League of Women Voters is quite troubled about the voting obstacles older Americans face. “The League’s concern is that as the population ages, the problems will only increase,” says Rose. “So we need to come up with solutions for the long term.”

In 2018, California will pilot voting centers that will offer early voting and emphasize accessibility. If properly implemented, these centers will be staffed with well-trained poll workers, have large parking lots and be close to mass transit; the model for them began in Colorado. “All those elements are key to older Americans and others who have disabilities,” says Rose.

“We have to make sure the system is designed so that everyone who wants to vote is able to,” says Bishop. “It’s a sacred part of our democracy.”

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