By BETTY IRELAND
It has long been known that older Americans vote in higher numbers than their younger counterparts. Whether this is due to an increased sense of duty, or the fact that governmental decisions increasingly affect older Americans (Social Security, Medicare, long term care issues), it is a trend not likely to change anytime soon.
In fact, by the year 2040, it is anticipated that more than 40 percent of voters will be age 65 and older. And yet, access to voting by older citizens - and the physical and mental abilities of our aging population - are a frequent source of discussion and debate in regard to the electoral process.
But there are other concerns that need to be addressed. On Jan. 31, during a hearing in the United States Senate, a University of Pennsylvania medical doctor said all states need guidelines for voting accommodations for residents of long-term care facilities. Currently, 21 states have instituted such guidelines.
Dr. Jason Karlawish said he has found there are many nursing home residents who want to vote but can't. Typically, administrative staff, not election officials, oversee voting procedures in such facilities, Dr. Karlawish said. And much voting is done by absentee ballot – well recognized as a mechanism for voter fraud.
Dr. Karlawish recommends a movement toward mobile polls. This might mean that county election officials would encourage voting registration, distribute ballots to long-term care residents, assist with voting, then collect and return the ballots to a polling place.
Currently, about 10 percent of older Americans live in long-term care facilities, where they face a variety of impediments to voting, including unrealistic geographical distances to the polls, lack of transportation, lack of assistance to obtain absentee ballot applications, and caregivers making the decision about whether certain residents can or cannot vote.
In West Virginia, my office has pioneered several initiatives to make voting easier for older residents, as well as helping to ensure that senior citizens are not the victims of voter fraud, or having their voices disenfranchised. Current West Virginia law says that any resident 18 and older has the right to vote unless he or she is found mentally incompetent by a court, or is a felon who remains under conviction. Otherwise, there are no legal restrictions to voting, no matter how old or infirm an individual may become.
When I assumed office, I worked with my staff to develop a senior outreach program. Our outreach coordinator literally delivers the services of the Secretary of State's office to seniors in all 55 counties. These services include voter registration, hands-on sessions with voting equipment, as well as charity fraud and election fraud presentations.
My office also publishes articles regarding voting options in newsletters to most of the state's senior centers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Voting rights brochures have been sent to residents of these long-term care facilities.
Through our newly introduced West Virginia Voter Hall of Fame, we are recognizing the efforts of those seniors in our state who have voted for at least 50 consecutive years.
It is one of those ironies of life that, for many Americans, the more committed they become to exercising their voting rights, the more difficult that process becomes due to age and illness. As a society, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure all Americans can vote, while at the same time ensuring that votes represent the will of the voter, without undue influence or coercion from those who might take advantage of the aged or infirmed.
Dr. Karlawish points out that successful models of mobile polling have been demonstrated in Australia and Canada. He proposes that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission "conduct research to develop a set of best voting practices for long-term care facilities, training for election officials to implement them, and partnerships between the Commission and states to test their feasibility and refine them."
I would like the West Virginia legislature to appoint a group to study Dr. Karlawish's research regarding how it might be utilized to help our state's senior citizens. Most of us, God willing, will someday face the obstacles to voting that exist today for our elderly citizens. Democracy demands that all legal voters, regardless of age or physical disability, be afforded the access and opportunity to exercise their most fundamental of rights as Americans.
Ireland is West Virginia's Secretary of State.