By Thomas Goldsmith

Last year, for the first time since 1948, Marlene Silva’s father, 92, wasn’t able to vote in a presidential election. 

It turned out that her father, a former IBM employee, was one of numerous North Carolina older people who were cut off from access to their typical ability to vote. For Silva, and thousands of other silver North Carolinians, at least one of three factors was at play in keeping him from casting a ballot. 

One element was the COVID-protective banishment of family members from long-term care facilities starting in March of 2020. Adding to that a felony-level state penalty for staff who help residents vote, and the diminished role of county-appointed teams designed for the same purpose, yet another casualty of the pandemic.

After her dad’s failed effort to vote at a North Raleigh assisted living center, Silva recognized the need for change and is taking action. 

“We would have taken him out, brought him over to a polling place and he would have been able to vote,” Silva, 62, said during a phone interview. “However, that was not going to be, in 2020.”

Now Silva, other individuals and some nonprofits are getting in touch with legislators in hopes of lessening the felony-level penalty leveled at staff members who assist voting by frail elderly people, as well as those with disabilities. 

“We’re all concerned about folks having the availability to vote, making it easier for folks to vote and at the same time addressing the integrity concerns that are out there, real or not,” said Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson.)

“North Carolinians are concerned about the integrity of the election. We owe it to them to get it fixed.” 

What needs to change?

A bill initially scheduled to be heard at a state Senate committee Wednesday identifies several areas of concern to voter integrity, including: 

  • prohibiting the acceptance of private contributions by county election boards to administer elections or to hire employees,
  • establishing the dates by which absentee ballots must be requested and received by elections officials, as well as procedures for documenting and counting them, and 
  • the setting up of a $5 million fund aimed at helping voters get photo IDs. 

Late Tuesday afternoon, senators pulled the bill, Senate Bill 326, from the committee calendar.

The bill does not make any provision about the threat of a felony penalty against a long-term care employee who helps a frail elderly resident to vote, even by depositing a mail-in ballot in a post-office box.

A provision to accomplish this apparently doesn’t appear anywhere in legislation under consideration but remains a legislative goal of Disability Rights North Carolina and the North Carolina Coalition on Aging. Along with the concerns about residents’ voting rights, legislators also have to keep in mind the many people who have become suspicious of voting practices in the wake of the 2020 election.

“I have not had anyone bring that problem to my attention, but we certainly need to make availability to ensure folks in nursing homes can vote,” Edwards said of the felony penalty. 

“The only concern that I’ve heard from a nursing home was from a family where an employee errantly assisted someone to vote. The family was very concerned with it,” he said. “I think they are probably pursuing legal action.”

It’s No. 1

Disability Rights, a statewide nonprofit, spread the word on its website less than a month before the election that the No. 1 issue for people with disabilities who want to vote is the  “strict limitations” on who may help them. 

North Carolina is far from alone as the site of heated efforts to pass, or defeat, piles of legislation governing everything from absentee ballots to the amount of sustenance poll workers can legally provide to voters who must wait in line for many hours. A recent count by the Brennan Center for Justice, a DC-based law and justice advocacy group, produced a tally of more than 360 measures viewed as restrictive of voting, from all but three of the United States.

“Many bills seek to undermine the power of local officials,” Brennan officials wrote on the nonprofit’s website. “After county election officials conducted elections during a pandemic and stood up to pressure to manipulate the results, state lawmakers are now seeking new criminal penalties to target these officials.”

But only North Carolina and Louisiana prohibit staff of long-term care facilities from helping residents to vote in any way.

Unique challenges seen

The pandemic made perilous the work of previous helpers appointed by county boards of election. Called MATs, or multi-partisan assistance teams, the groups of at least two people were allowed to visit facilities and make sure of voting access for older residents and those with disabilities.

“COVID presented unique challenges for MATs, including the fact that many facilities did not allow visitors at all during Covid, and the concern from MAT members about contracting or spreading COVID in covered facilities,” Patrick Gannon, public information director for the state Board of Elections, said in an email. 

In spring 2020, state elections board executive director Karen Brinson Bell asked legislators to adjust some of the barriers faced by staff of long-term care facilities who worry about facing the stiff penalties for assisting voting by vulnerable older residents, but she did not succeed, Gannon wrote. 

Bell also asked a federal district court judge to adjust the policy during the pandemic so that long-term care staff could “serve as witnesses and assist voters in facilities with the absentee voting process.” 

“The court declined to do so, noting that the State Board had raised an issue of ‘substantial concern’ but that the injury was ‘speculative’ and ‘undemonstrated,’” Gannon wrote.

MATs seek guidance

The issue of how much voting assistance to residents is appropriate has been chewed over for years. But the pandemic that swept across North Carolina and the world last year revealed problems that no one seems to have anticipated.

As numbers of cases and death from COVID-19 rose more quickly in nursing homes than in the general population and given widespread concern about transmission of the virus in long-term care, family members and other visitors were banned beginning in March.

That meant that more of the work fell on the teams sent by county governments. They quickly ran into problems, again because of concerns about infection.

According to Disability Rights, Tonya Burnette, director of elections for Granville County, told the nonprofit in October that the county “desperately” wanted to identify people to serve on MATs. The county was offering pay and a two-hour Zoom training course.

“We have already had requests from several facilities and nursing homes and expect more,” Burnette said. “They are willing to work with us on evenings and weekends if needed. We just need to find people willing to help.” 

The state Board of Elections and state Department of Health and Human Services worked together as they were pounded with questions about the ways in which existing and proposed MATs could do their work during the deadly sweep of the novel coronavirus. The answers were often complex.

Given problems with the MAT process, a key obstacle emerged in the state law that contains a felony-level penalty for nursing home staff who “serve as witnesses and assist voters in facilities with the absentee voting process,” Gannon said.

Because county election officials oversee the MAT process, he said, the state board of elections was not able to determine how many long-term care residents missed out on voting because of these helpers’ absence.

Facilities say hands are tied

Jeff Horton, executive director of the trade group North Carolina Senior Living Association, said that long-term care facilities have had to set aside the usual practices of assisting voting.

“We used to assist people voting by opening up a bus and taking them down to the voting place or letting them do absentee ballots, but they passed a law and they pretty much tied our hands to do anything,” Horton said. “Nobody wants to face a felony.”

Marlene Silva noted that she volunteered for Meals on Wheels for 18 years, giving her considerable experience in helping older people. In 2020, her father had had a serious fall and was already limited in his mobility.

“While he is able to understand what is going on around him, watches the news daily, and has the capacity to vote, he was not aware that he needed to request an absentee ballot and would still have needed assistance in filling out a ballot,” she wrote in an email to legislators. “By not allowing care home staff to assist in these kinds of situations, it was impossible for him to vote in the 2020 Presidential election.”

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...