According to an 82-page state document first reported by The Tennessean, expanded access to absentee ballots will not apply to residents in nursing homes or long-term care facilities that are in their county of registration.
People in residential care homes in a different county from where they’re registered to vote, however, would be able to request mail-in ballots — a wrinkle that might wind up limiting some of the state’s most vulnerable voters from participating in the state’s upcoming Senate primary.
Nursing home residents can vote at their facilities, with election officials picking up ballots, said Julia Bruck, director of communications for the Tennessee secretary of state. “Nursing home residents are able to vote at the facility they reside,” she said. “In fact, many nursing home residents have already voted. Election officials collect the votes at the facility so it is not necessary for nursing home residents to mail their ballots back to the election commission office. This process ensures those in nursing homes are not disenfranchised.”
Bruck did not respond to a follow up to a question about how Covid-related restrictions on outside visitors to nursing homes have affected voting procedures.
In Tennessee, nursing home residents account for 40% of all deaths, despite being just 5% of those with confirmed cases. There are still visitor restrictions in place at care facilities that limit the number of daily visitors and also include mandated testing and social distancing.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, mental or physical limitations can make it difficult for nursing home residents to vote. As a result, 32 states including Tennessee have statutes that specifically call for assistance to be brought into nursing homes to help.
“Our citizens in nursing homes should not have to jump through hoops just to vote. A state judge ordered that every voter has the right to request an absentee ballot to vote by mail because of the pandemic. Of course that order should apply to people who live in nursing homes,” Organize Tennessee, a nonpartisan grassroots organization that works to enfranchise voters, said in an email statement. “These are some of our most vulnerable and at-risk citizens in the state. The Secretary of State’s guidelines prohibiting nursing home residents from voting by mail are irresponsible and dangerous.”
Voting by mail
Applications for mail-in ballots have soared as Americans, especially older adults, look to limit their exposure to coronavirus. At the same time, Republicans have been increasingly vocal about concerns over voter fraud and potential irregularities. President Donald Trump has led the charge, repeatedly casting the process as unreliable and open to abuse.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, absentee or mailed ballots in several ways “are as secure or more secure than traditional methods of voting.” One in four votes in the 2018 election were cast by mail-in ballots, and many states have moved to make the process even easier.
Potential danger of voting in person
Senior citizens are most at risk of contracting coronavirus. Early data from the CDC suggests that older people are twice as likely to contract a serious illness from the novel coronavirus.
Quiteka Moten, Tennessee’s long term care ombudsman, told CNN that she was aware of residents at nursing homes and care facilities who had been denied absentee ballots.
“As someone who has never missed voting since I turned 18, I am absolutely for everyone voting,” she said. “The fact that these folks have been sequestered in their rooms now for quite some time, a lot of their rights as residents waived, I just think that would be the ultimate punch. I just don’t want to see that happen.”