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electionlineWeekly--September 22, 2011

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Protecting the voting rights of senior citizens
California latest state to approve legislation specifically aimed at seniors

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California Assemblyman Mike Gato (D-Los Angeles) had heard enough from his constituents to know that something needed to be done. So earlier this year, he introduced AB547, a measure that would protect the state’s senior citizens from voter fraud and abuse.

"I authored AB 547 after hearing stories from my constituents about their parents and grandparents having their right to vote stolen by caretakers.,” Gato said in a release. “This legislation will help preserve the voting rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens- senior citizens under the care of others.”

The law makes it a misdemeanor for anyone providing care or direct supervision to a person who is at least 65 years old to coerce or deceive that senior into voting for or against a candidate or measure contrary to the senior’s intent.

Senior citizens are the fastest growing population in the U.S., especially as the baby-boom generation continues to age. Currently there are more than 35 million people aged 65 and over in the U.S. Of that population, more than a million are currently housed in one of the at least 19,000 assisted living facilities throughout the country.

Although largely anecdotal, there is a growing body of evidence that the voting rights of seniors who live in assisted living facilities are being violated.

“Data to describe the problem are not available,” said Dr. Jason Karlawish, professor of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Studies of the attitudes of long term care workers who assist residents voting suggest that many workers have inappropriate views and practices about how to conduct voting in long term care settings, including deciding whether a resident can vote and inappropriately assisting residents.”

Earlier this year, Karlawish along with several other writers including former Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz authored a report for the Election Law Journal on the benefits and challenges of bringing mobile voting to long-term care facilities.

Currently the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging is conducting a project to “identify, publicize and catalyze policy and practice strategies nationwide that promote proper access to the polls by persons with cognitive impairments and protect against the fraudulent manipulation of the vote of this population.”

According to Karlawash, the California legislation has a good intent — protecting the voting rights of older adults who live in longer-term care facilities, but the methods are not best means to achieve this.

“A better means is mobile polling, that is, bringing elections officials into the facilities to gather votes and register voters,” Karlawash said. “At least one study suggests that this practice and the training that goes with it will minimize fraud, maximize voter rights and access to the vote, and lift the overall quality of the election system. In many democracies, it is the norm.”

Laws in New York and Florida work to address this by allowing local election administrators to work with assisted living facilities to bring the voting booth to residents.

New York’s law requires that counties set up a polling facility within assisted living facilities if at least 25 residents in the facility have applied for an absentee ballot. In Florida, the law is a more broad allowing administrators of assisted living facilities to request supervised voting or allowing county elections administrators to make the call to provide supervised voting.

Kathy Dent, supervisor of elections in Sarasota County, Fla. — a county with one of the oldest populations in Florida — said that she is unaware of any reported problems of voting rights violations in Sarasota.

“We just really push supervised voting,” Dent said. “It has been very successful here.”