The ability to participate in our democracy by voting in elections is a foundational right of citizenship that we cherish as Americans. No adult should be denied this right because of their age or ability. This principle is reflected in President Biden’s March 7, 2021, Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting.
The Views from AARP
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)—representing millions of seniors--has recent polling showing that voters age 50+ will decide the 2024 elections. According to AARP, while their concerns are, understandably, with the future of Medicare and Social Security, they also worry about threats to democracy, the costs and burdens of caregiving, and the cost of prescription drugs. If seniors will decide the next election, as lawyers, don’t we have a civic duty to make sure they are all registered and able to vote?
In response to the concerns of seniors, AARP has also put together a list of recommendations to make voting easier. From the AARP Policy Book, they include:
- Allowing same-day voter registration;
- Opening additional polling locations;
- Establishing vote-by-mail programs (including no-excuse absentee in-person voting); and
- Allowing early voting (including no-excuse absentee in-person voting).
Voting at Skilled-Nursing Facilities
More specifically, with respect to older voters, AARP advocates on behalf of the 1.4 million that live in skilled-nursing facilities as follows:
“[p]olicymakers should improve access to voting for residents in long-term care facilities. This includes permitting and encouraging mobile polling. [Further][a] proxy should be able to return the ballot on behalf of the long-term facility resident.”
For additional information and recommendations on how to make it easier for seniors to get to the polls and vote, see the AARP Policy Book referenced above.
The Role of Congress and Implementing the Help America Vote Act
On October 29, 2002, President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)(Pub.L. 107-252). According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) website explaining HAVA, Congress intended to “make sweeping reforms to the nation’s voting process” in order to ensure that persons with disabilities be given equal opportunity to vote freely and independently.
As we know, many seniors have disabilities and what DOJ and United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recommend for those with disabilities can assist seniors getting to the polls, too. DOJ has not only litigated to implement HAVA but has also published a guide for poll accessibility. The guidebook includes a design for making access to voting places easier with low-cost, temporary ways to remove physical barriers.
The bipartisan and independent (EAC), which also has a role in implementing HAVA, published a report in July 2023 with their recommendations to make voting accessible. These include: best practices for voter registration; accessible in-person voting; and accessible vote by mail. A survey by the EAC found that one in ten disabled voters in 2020 had trouble with their votes. As of 2022, the EAC had distributed $955 million in election security grants to states and territories.
Another agency working to implement HAVA is the Administration for Community Living (ACL), part of the Department of Health and Human Services. ACL has a State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program to help if a person living in a long-term care facility such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities is having difficulty exercising their right to vote. See The National Ombudsman Resource Center (NORC) for information on each state’s program. ACL also has a Voting Access Program created under HAVA that provides services to people with disabilities.
State Implementation of HAVA
Each state has its own plan to implement HAVA. For example, the Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE) announced their 2023 amendments to the State’s HAVA plan as follows:
HAVA gives us a unique and historic opportunity to improve the election process in the Commonwealth. While Virginia has led the nation in implementing election reform initiatives over the years, there is much to be done to fully enfranchise our citizenry. The federal financial support authorized by HAVA will allow us to create an improved statewide voter registration system, replace antiquated voting equipment, improve polling place accessibility for individuals with disabilities, enhance the training of poll workers and election officials, give our military and other overseas Virginia residents improved opportunities to vote and supply voters with information about voting procedures, voting rights, and voting technology.”