‘Their voices need to be heard’: Concerns rise over voting access for seniors, nursing home residents during pandemic

Election

Central Texas elections officials are predicting record numbers of mail-in voters

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Since the spring, Cissy Sanders has sent dozens of emails to lawmakers and state health officials calling for more protections against the coronavirus for nursing home residents like her mom.

Her latest email was addressed to the Texas Secretary of State.

“What is your Office communicating to the nursing homes to ensure that nursing home residents will have sufficient time to request their ballots, complete them and have enough time for them to go through the USPS and arrive on time?” she asked in the message. “Nursing home residents, including my mom, have been through so much hardship this year—ground zero for the virus, high infection and death rates, isolation and lock down. I want to ensure that nursing home residents can easily and safely vote.”

Her questions come as Central Texas election officials are preparing for unprecedented levels of mail-in voting due to the pandemic.

As of August 13, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she already received 31,000 mail-in ballot applications for the November election. She expects more than 100,000 mail-in ballots to be cast, a record for any election.

With certain visitor restrictions still in place at Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities, mail-in voting will be the primary option for residents. That means the responsibility of distributing and collecting ballots falls on nursing facility staff, but DeBeauvoir noted that was already the case.

“They are very accustomed to handling it,” she said. “They automatically get a ballot by mail, and we do make contact with the administrator for the nursing home to see if that person needs any extra mail or any extra training.”

However, this year the responsibility falls on a workforce already facing staffing shortages and overwhelmed by the effects of the pandemic.

“I haven’t heard any complaints, so I think they will handle it just fine,” DeBeauvoir said, of facilities administering voting.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump indicated he will block additional funding for the United States Postal Service, which is experiencing widespread delays.

Sanders is worried that without special attention paid to nursing home residents during this year’s elections, their ballots might not be counted in time.

“I just feel like nursing home residents are always kind of skipped over, ignored, forgotten,” she said. “I think more than ever before nursing home residents need this vote—need to be able to vote easily and safely—because their voices need to be heard.”

DeBeauvoir said anyone requesting a mail-in ballot should be prepared to vote and return it immediately, no matter they are voting from.

“Don’t hold onto it for any length of time because you may run out of time,” she urged voters.

She expects more retirement home and elderly, independent living residents to vote by mail this year, as well, after state senators passed a bill banning mobile polling locations last year.

“We have 120,000 people here in Travis County who are over 65. Some of them have never participated in by-mail voting because they like going to the polls. This time they are going to change their approach,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to try to assist them.”

Still, she urged able voters to safely do so in-person.

“We learned a lot of lessons from the July elections on how to keep our voters safe and not touch any of the equipment ever as long as they are in the polling place,” she said.

DeBeauvoir noted she is presenting even more ideas for the November General Election at this week’s County Commissioner meeting. According to the agenda, the Clerk’s office has requested to purchase more election equipment in order to facilitate voting in larger polling places with more social distancing.

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