Making It Easier for Seniors to Register and Vote
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.”
However, problems remain. For example, the SBE of Virginia does not have the funds to ensure compliance with the ADA requirements for accessibility. “As of January 2002, 12.6% of Virginia’s precincts were not compliant based on the self-evaluation. As of January 1, 2003, these self-evaluations resulted in only 12 precincts (out of 2277 total) reported as out of compliance. While SBE has also begun site visits to verify the reports on the self-10 evaluations, budgetary considerations have precluded the audit program necessary to ensure 100% compliance.” (Id. at 5.)
Guidance from the League of Women Voters
Finally, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) has a series of recommendations to expand voter access. As the LWV states on its website, “[i]ncreased accessibility to the electoral process is integral to ensuring that every American can exercise their right to vote.” LWV recommendations to improve access to the polls are:
- Automatic voter registration;
- Online voter registration;
- Multilingual voting resources;
- Extended polling hours;
- Mail-in voting;
- Early voting;
- Eliminated ballot notary and witness signature requirements;
- Extended registration deadlines;
- Expanded polling locations;
- Eliminated or relaxed ID requirements;
- Added protections for in-person voting.
Many, if not all of these recommendations could make voting more accessible for seniors.
Ways to Get Seniors to the Polls
On a more practical level, the non-profit National Council for Aging (NCOA) developed a very interesting and successful program for the 2022 mid-term elections by joining with the ride-share company Lyft to create a LyftUp Voting Access Program to provide free ride share coupons to seniors needing rides to the polls. The Program ended last year but hopefully will be resuscitated for the 2024 elections. If not, individuals living with or helping seniors get to the polls can provide them rides through their own Lyft (or Uber) accounts.
Other helpful ways to provide greater access for seniors to vote include some used in my hometown of Alexandria, VA. The City’s website has complete details on where to vote and when. The City also provides information on absentee voting, curbside voting for those over 65 or with a disability, and help in the polling booth with voting. The website also refers you to either the local Democrat or Republican party’s website if you need transportation to the polls.
State Election Laws Can Help or Hinder Seniors’ Voting
Finally, state laws on elections can make it easier or harder for seniors to vote. For example, Pennsylvania just passed legislation to simplify voter registration by making it automatic when you get a license or other permit at your local department of motor vehicles, joining 23 other states who have already done this.
On the other hand, implementation of Texas’ “S.B. 1” legislation has been challenging for seniors in the state, as reported in a September 19, 2023, article in the New York Times (NYT). The NYT reports the story of a 73-year old retired school bus driver who lives near Houston and whose mail-in ballot was rejected because it didn’t contain the required identification, e.g,, social security number or driver’s license number, which the judge in the case previously found violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Legal Defense Fund and the Houston Area Urban League, among others, have brought suit claiming that S.B. 1 violated the 1st, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The trial began on September 11, 2023, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
What Can You Do To Help?
We may not be as influential as Taylor Swift who with one call or text got 200,000 young people to register to vote, but we can help with some of the following suggestions:
- Call seniors you know and offer rides to the polls.
- Offer Lyft ride coupons or schedule Lyft rides for seniors.
- Make a day out of it – go vote and take your older neighbors out for coffee or lunch.
- Make sure polling is available at nursing facilities near you.
- Make sure polling places are accessible and clearly marked.
- Encourage your precinct to have curb-side voting.
- Encourage your state or precinct to have same day registration and voting.
- Encourage your precinct to have clearly marked, available, and secure boxes for mail-in ballots.
- Encourage your state or precinct to simplify their registration systems by using automatic registration with trips to the DNV.
- Encourage your state or precinct to allow early mail-in ballots which also allows a reasonable period of time (e.g., 3 days) for those ballots to reach the polling authorities in the mail after the polls close on election day and be counted provided that they were postmarked before the polls closed on election day.
- Make sure your state or precinct is meeting the requirements for HAVA grants and see if your state or local board of elections has an updated plan for spending to meet these requirements.
- Challenge state laws that make it more restrictive for seniors and others to vote.
The right to vote for every American, including every senior, is vital to our democracy. Let’s do our part to make it happen.
“Making It Easier for Seniors to Register and Vote,” by Joan M. Bondareff was published in the American Bar Association’s Senior Lawyers Division Voice of Experience newsletter on October 25, 2023.