Smith: The voters no one is talking about

Apr. 28, 2013 @ 08:21 PM

The proposed changes to North Carolina’s voting laws have dominated political headlines for the past few months. Is voter fraud a significant problem in our state? Will a requirement of government-issued photo IDs unnecessarily infringe on the right to vote? Should students be able to vote where they live?

Absent from the headlines and the larger public conversation are the right-to-vote challenges faced by thousands of North Carolinians who live either temporarily or permanently in nursing homes, state-operated facilities and other congregate residences. For some people, the hardest part about voting is remembering what time the poll closes or finding a parking spot. But for others, casting a ballot during an election is an Odyssean ordeal.

First, the voter who lives in a facility must meet the challenge of physically getting to the polls. A staff person, family member, or approved visitor must agree to transport the person to the polls and provide any other support needed once they get there, such as navigating long lines, punching voting cards or pulling levers. If that’s not enough, these people often meet with resistance from poll workers about their right to have that assistance.

Absentee voting seems like a reasonable option. What could be easier than mailing in a ballot? But even that presents challenges for some. Many voters living in facilities need assistance steadying their hand to mark the ballot clearly. Others need help reading the ballot because of poor vision.

Current law requires all absentee ballots to include the signature of a witness who must be a “near relative or verifiable legal guardian.” Roommates, friends and other visitors don’t qualify to witness an absentee ballot under North Carolina law. That means even if a voter does not need hands-on assistance, he or she still needs a relative or guardian to sign the ballot for it to be counted. For people who do not have regular contact with family members or their legal guardian or their family or guardian does not place a high priority on helping the individual cast their vote, the absentee ballot is not a viable option for them. For this reason, many residents of long-term care are precluded from participating in an election.

The currently proposed Voter ID bill in the North Carolina House would keep the restrictive requirement that a relative or guardian must participate in an absentee ballot and would make a difficult process even harder by requiring two witnesses for an absentee ballot.
In an attempt to lower these hurdles, current law provides for an alternative process for people living in facilities. Multi-partisan teams, trained by the county boards of elections, may facilitate voting in facilities. Before the November 2012 election, advocates at the nonprofit I help lead - Disability Rights NC – made phone calls to see how effective those teams were. Calls to county boards of elections in counties with the largest number of residents living in nursing homes and other congregate living situations revealed that few multi-partisan teams are available. Many counties have none. The ones we found were made up of volunteers who had received little or no training on how to work with people with a wide-variety of disabilities.

No doubt these restrictions come from worries about some voters being exploited and their votes stolen. Disability Rights NC shares those concerns and supports efforts to protect voters with disabilities from fraud. But the potential victims of that fraud should not lose their rights. When older North Carolinians were exploited in telephone scams, we didn’t take their phones away.  Instead, we focused on prosecuting the wrongdoers. Certainly the voting rights of people with disabilities living in facilities are no less worthy of protection. As a society, we should not disenfranchise our citizens who because of age or other disabilities cannot live independently.  

The bottom line: Let’s not create unnecessary barriers for voters who understand their civic responsibility (and constitutional right) to help select and inform our elected officials.

Vicki Smith is the Executive Director of Disability Rights NC.