Jay Leavitt of Polk County, pictured here with his wife Virginia, is in acute care facility and upset at how hard it is to cast a ballot this fall. (Image courtesy of Jay Leavitt.) Barriers to voting
Jay Leavitt of Polk County, pictured here with his wife Virginia, is in acute care facility and upset at how hard it is to cast a ballot this fall. (Image courtesy of Jay Leavitt.)

People in NC’s long-term care and nursing homes face more barriers than normal in casting ballots this year. Solutions have been slow to come.

Jay Leavitt doesn’t know how he will vote this year.

The 84-year-old Polk County man is paraplegic, and as a result faces more challenges than most when it comes to voting. In past years, Leavitt mailed in his ballot after his wife came to the Lake Lure-area nursing home where he lives full-time to help him fill it out.

But 2020 has been different. 

Leavitt has been in South Carolina most of the year, getting specialized health care at various facilities. But even if he was back in Polk County, he would face pandemic-related hurdles to cast his ballot. 

He can’t leave care facilities and cast a ballot in person, and until this week he had no guarantee that his wife or one of the county-level volunteer voting-assistance teams called Multipartisan Assistance Teams (MAT), normally dispatched to help voters in nursing homes and assisted-living centers, would be permitted to visit him given the threat of COVID-19 infections in these centers. 

Leavitt also can’t ask nursing-home staff to help him. North Carolina state law makes it a felony for owners or staff of hospitals, rest homes, and nursing homes to assist voters with absentee or mail-in voting for fear there could be manipulation.

Leavitt fears the same barriers extend to a fair number of the estimated 90,000 people in North Carolina who reside in nursing homes, assisted-living centers, or other medically necessarily congregate living situations. Those in jails face similar challenges.

“I don’t understand how they can be so blind,” Leavitt said in a phone interview with Cardinal & Pine about the state elections board recognizing the needs of voters like himself. “We’re talking about [nearly] 100,000 people in nursing homes that are going to be disqualified from voting.”

Leavitt’s challenges to vote this year would be significant in any given year, but potentially insurmountable in 2020 given how the novel coronavirus has virtually cut off residents of long-term-care homes, according to Lauren Zingraff, the executive director of the North Carolina-based advocacy group Friends of Residents in Long-Term Care. (Leavitt, who has been a longtime advocate for persons with disabilities, also serves on the group’s board.)

“It’s been really easy to forget this population,” Zingraff said.

Family Members Usually There to Help  

Family members typically step in to help relatives in nursing homes and medical facilities vote, whether by helping request and fill out absentee ballots or by taking a relative out to vote in person during the early voting period or on Election Day, she said.  

That’s not happening this year, as COVID-19 restrictions mean most residents in assisted-living centers haven’t seen their loved ones in months. Many facilities have been unable to allow the outdoor visits okayed in early September by the state health department, Zingraff said. That’s because of staffing and concerns about COVID-19, and now influenza spreading among a medically fragile population.  

But the state is recognizing, and addressing, some of the barriers. 

NC Department of Health and Humans Services Secretary Mandy Cohen announced Monday that indoor visits could begin happening at long-term care, skilled nursing, and assisted-living facilities. 

Her secretarial order specifically requires these centers to allow voter-assistance teams, near relatives, and legal guardians into the centers to help people vote, provided the center hasn’t had an outbreak in the prior two weeks and the county has had positive COVID-19 results below 10%. 

State election officials consider a near relative, who can assist disabled voters with their ballots, to be a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, child, grandchild, mother- or father-in-law, son- or daughter-in-law, stepparent, or stepchild.

“Residents have a right to vote and may need assistance with their absentee ballots,” Cohen wrote in her order. 

Regardless, not every county even has a MAT set up, said Corye Dunn, the head of government affairs for Disability Rights NC. Her group found that 11 largely rural counties in the state did not have the volunteers available to staff a MAT during the March primary. 

The MAT volunteers are often older citizens who may not be helping this year because they themselves are at high risk of serious complications from the infectious disease, Zingraff said.

Even if a patient has found someone that can legally serve as a witness to sign the back of the envelope, there’s the basic fact that getting a stamp to mail it is a huge endeavor for some because of access as well as money, Zingraff said. 

Low-income seniors living in long-term-care homes who depend on Medicaid and Medicare get a monthly personal-care allotment of just $60, which is supposed to pay for prescription co-pays, all their personal-care needs such as shampoo and toothpaste, and any food beyond three meals a day.

“All of the issues were always there, it’s just that COVID is highlighting them,” Zingraff said. “The barriers have been made much, much worse.”

Though there were initial concerns that groups or care facilities would be barred from giving stamps to residents, the State Board of Elections believes that should be okay. 

“We do not interpret North Carolina law as prohibiting a third party from providing postage to a voter for return of the absentee request form or absentee ballot,” wrote Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the state elections board. “[G]iving a stamp to a voter is not a federal crime because it is a ‘facilitation benefit’ to make it easier to vote rather than an exchange for actually voting.”

Dunn said she and other advocates are disappointed that the state legislature, NC State Board of Elections, and NC Department of Health and Human Services didn’t coordinate earlier this year to guarantee that vulnerable citizens residing in nursing homes would be able to exercise their right to vote.

Neither the state board or the DHHS could be reached for comment by press time Tuesday.

“We have chosen as a state to make them some of the most vulnerable people to bear the heaviest burdens [to vote],” Dunn said.

Mail-In Voting During COVID-19

This year’s pandemic has dramatically changed the way many Americans are voting, with expected numbers for voting by mail or absentee far eclipsing typical absentee-voting totals. 

Almost a quarter of all North Carolina voters plan to vote absentee this year, according to a recent poll from Meredith College.

North Carolina has allowed mail-in voting for years and permits anyone to vote absentee if they wish. People can request ballots from their county election boards and mail their ballots in or hand them in at county election boards or early-voting sites. Voters do need to have a witness sign the outside of the ballot. 

READ MORE: How to Vote by Mail in North Carolina 

Mail-in voting is supposed to make it easy to vote, but that’s not necessarily the case for people such as Leavitt and others in long-term care settings during a pandemic. 

And it’s compounded by the fact that the state’s solution—the MAT—to giving disabled voters and those in care facilities help in voting may not work well in a pandemic, Dunn said. She questioned why there wasn’t more thought during the start of the pandemic when restrictions were placed on care centers to think ahead about how those residents would be able to cast their votes.

“We did all that months ago and didn’t think ahead to October and November, and did not make provisions in the law for how people who live in facilities would be able to access either a polling place or an absentee ballot,” said Dunn.

Voting in Jail Another Challenge

Those in jails are facing similar challenges, with some variation.

North Carolina law prevents those who are actively serving sentences for felonies, including time spent on probation, from voting, but that typically doesn’t affect a jail population, said Kate Fellman, the founder and executive director of You Can Vote, a non-partisan North Carolina-based voter advocacy group.

That’s because jails are typically where people are held when awaiting trial, and haven’t been convicted. (Those who have finished serving a felony sentence can reinstate their voting rights through their county election boards.)

But when in jail, people don’t have access to the internet and can’t request an absentee ballot online, she said.

“They have the most challenges because of lack of access to technology and can’t go out to the polls,” she said.

Her group spent a lot of time registering new voters, and in past years have visited county jails around the state to both register voters and talk about how to request absentee ballots.

This year, she’s been more dependent on individual sheriffs and whether they’ll allow her team to give virtual presentations to inmates. Some counties, such as Durham and Mecklenburg, have been open to her group’s voter registration efforts, she said. But there have been other jails that don’t want outside groups like hers to come into the jail, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

She, like disability rights advocates, wishes more time had been spent by state officials this summer thinking about how jailed voters would be able to cast ballots this fall.

You Can Vote, which serves all voters and has no partisan connections, has had a surge of calls from people around the state, largely those who have voted before but are worried their ballots may not count this year.

Her suggestion is to either vote absentee early on or make plans to get to an early-voting site.

“Vote now and get it out of the way so we can really focus on the folks that need that extra help,” she said.

Meanwhile, Leavitt is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his absentee ballot after he sent off a request for a ballot last week.

“I vote in every election,” Leavitt said.

His hope is that he’ll be able to do the same in 2020.

Are you or a loved one facing challenges voting this year because of COVID-19? Contact reporter Sarah Ovaska at sarah@couriernewsroom.com.