MILWAUKEE — As the November election quickly approaches, the coronavirus pandemic is making it harder for the more than one million Americans who live in nursing homes to cast their ballots.
Nursing home residents typically get help with voting to make sure their ballots get counted. This year, that help is greatly reduced due to Covid-19 lockdowns and visitor restrictions.
“This is almost a perfect storm for some voters to be left on the sidelines, which is very unfortunate,” said Neil Albrecht, the former Executive Director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission.
Special voting deputies who normally go into nursing homes to help makes sure all residents vote, are not allowed inside the facilities this year.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission is instead working with advocacy groups to make sure all senior care facilities in the state receive proper training on what they can and can’t do by law, to help residents cast their ballots.
“A nursing home resident, if the facility could help them, could potentially use FaceTime or video conferencing to have a loved one witness the voting of their ballot,” said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s Chief Election Official.
But in some cases, that’s a lot to ask of elderly residents and nursing home staff, who are already spread thin. Staff that help residents read or mark their ballots must sign the Certification of Assistant and Certification of Witness on the ballot envelope.
“We want to protect that population and make sure they’re not being influenced by external persons who are helping them,” Albrecht said. “You’re relying on the integrity of the person who is signing as a witness, and there is no track record around why we would question the integrity of care facility staff.”
A group of residents at St. John’s on the Lake is taking matters into their own hands, to try and make sure no one is left out of the political process. They took a training course with the League of Women Voters to help get their neighbors registered to vote, request absentee ballots and get questions answered ahead of Election Day.
“I feel it’s my civic duty,” said Joanne Brandt. “The important thing of being an American is to have the right to vote.”
“So far, we have helped more then 70 fellow residents,” said Holger Petersen.
“We’re also working with staff - we’re attending staff meetings - seeing how we can help,” said Juanita Mast. “We are consistently reaching out to residents and helping them with whatever they need to make sure they can vote the way they want to.”
But most nursing homes don’t have a group like this. And even this group is not allowed to meet with some of St. John’s most vulnerable residents in the assisted living programs.
Advocates worry it’s leaving the ability to vote in question, for many older Americans.