Carolyn Mounce

Ben's Mother
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I am a certified volunteer ombudsman for residents of Long Term Care (LTC) facilities.  I have done this work since 2003.  In 2004 I became a volunteer deputy voter registrar and in 2006, a precinct elections clerk.  In 2004 and 2006, I assisted residents in a nursing home register and vote in the general election.  In 2007, I wrote a voter guide and facility best practices document for LTC residents and facilities in Harris County.

 

The right to vote is a fundamental right of all citizens of our country.  All citizens eligible to vote should have easy access to a ballot.  These ballots must also maintain the integrity of the vote.

 

Since 2003, I have noticed that attempts to improve the integrity of the ballots have reduced the access to ballots for LTC residents and others in the elderly community.  Simple things that everyone takes for granted, such as checking a web site, calling the election office or showing a photo id is not easily available to LTC residents.

 

My friend Ben and I went through 12 years of school together.  We grew up in the southeast part the county.  We both left La Porte.  He moved to the northwest part of the county and I moved to the west side of the county.  His mother became a widow and lived alone in her home in La Porte until she had a stroke.  She was completely paralyzed from the neck down.  Since Ben was the “responsible party” he moved her to a facility close to him so that he could visit her more often and be more involved in her care.  She subscribed to the La Porte Bayshore Sun to get local news from her community, she continued to receive her church bulletins by mail and she had a phone.  She could not lift the paper, or the phone.  She depended on others to help her with these basic tasks.  She had been very interested in politics and I asked Ben how she cast her ballot.  He said he had asked the facility about voting and no one knew anything.  He had to make several calls to the county and was finally able to get a mail in ballot.  He then sat with her as they went through each line of the ballot and he marked her choices.  The process took well over an hour.  I tell this story because this is in theory how LTC residents should vote, assisted by their family members.

 

Ben’s mother was one of a fortunate few.  She was able to afford a private room.  Most residents that I visit as an ombudsman share a room.  In a shared room, it is not possible to cast a private ballot with assistance.  She could afford a phone.  Most residents that I see have access only to a common phone that is located in an open area of the facility.  She was also able to afford a newspaper subscription.  Most residents I visit cannot afford a newspaper to get election news or sample ballots.  They must rely on a shared television to get information on candidates and upcoming elections.

 

If Ben’s mother had stayed in her community of over 70 years, her son would not have been able to assist her in casting her ballot.  She would have had to rely on facility staff or volunteers.  When a resident does not have a family member to assist them in voting, the facility Activity Director is usually the person who will assist them.  If HB 1994 were strictly interpreted and strictly enforced, every good Activity Director, and the author of this, would be subject to multiple fines.

 

Per HB 1994, I tried to find an Early Voting Clerk and was unsuccessful.  I tried to find anyone from Harris County who would come to a facility to assist voters and was unsuccessful.  It was not because they did not want to, or did not see a need, but because they could not.

 

There are language problems.  Trying to find someone who can interpret the forms and ballots can be difficult.  There may be someone who speaks English or Spanish assisting a voter who speaks Vietnamese.

 

It took Ben over an hour to go through the ballot with his mother.  This is not unusual.  From my experience, the time limit is dependent on the voter’s stamina and ability to remain focused rather than the length of the ballot.  Having worked as an election clerk, I can say that this is also true of voters using the eSlate.

 

When assisting a voter with a mail in ballot, it is dependent on the person reading the ballot to remind the voter that they can vote a straight party ticket and that they can vote the entire ballot or only the races or referenda that they choose.  The assistant should also ask if they want to hear uncontested races.  There is no consistent or recommended method of assisting a voter with a mail in ballot.

 

During the time that I was gathering information for the voter guide and facility guide, we assembled a group of people from the League of Women Voters, the county elections department, facility representative and other ombudsman from Harris County.  I presented a sample mail in ballot and it became clear immediately that the process was not intuitive.  The instructions were in small print and there were contradictions regarding where and how to sign.  The first impression was that pieces were added here and there over the years to comply with various regulation or procedure changes, but the entire ballot process was not reviewed for consistency.

 

I have lived in Harris County my entire life.  I have watched the population boom and the demographics change.  Even with early voting, lines can be quite long at polling places.  In Harris County during the 2004 general election, 42 per cent of the ballots cast were early voting in person and mail in ballots.  There were still long lines on Election Day.

 

For most of the citizens of long term care facilities, the mail in ballot is the only option available for casting their vote.  County buses are not available for trips to the polls.  To ride MetroLift to the poll, a person must be a MetroLift subscriber with a doctor’s release.  When I asked a facility about using their van, I was told that a trip to the poll was not covered by Medicare or Medicaid.  Since the Hurricane Rita bus fire, transportation for LTC residents has gotten even more difficult.

 

My experience has been that many residents in LTC are not aware that they can still vote.  I also hear that the residents don’t want to vote.  As the election nears and there is more and more coverage on the television, residents will begin to ask about voting.  By the time they express their desire, it is often too late for them to register and request a ballot by mail.

 

Older citizens and LTC residents in particular, must watch as their freedom of choice disappears.  They can no longer sleep when they want, eat when they want, or even bathe when they want.  They must ask for assistance to go to the bathroom, to get out of bed and to even get a cup of coffee.  They are not used to asking for help and are reluctant to “impose on others”.  These people are the ones that taught me in school without my asking.  They helped build churches, libraries and parks for me to use and did it without my asking.  I feel the least I can do is to ask them if they wish to vote and assist them to cast their ballot.  They are still members of the community and citizens of this country.

 

Recommendations: 

 

Review the entire mail in ballot contents and the process itself.  There are 8 items including 2 envelopes in the mail in ballot packet, not including the actual ballot.  Some items are in multiple languages making it difficult to read.

 

Identify long term care facilities, assisted living facilities and retirement communities and review the logistics of delivering a number of mail in ballots to the same location, casting the ballots with integrity and returning the completed ballots.

 

Look for ways to involve the facility in assisting these voters by including specific requirements addressing voting in Title 40 Social Services and Assistance, Part 1 Department of Aging and Disability Services Chapter 19 and any other area regarding the licensure of long term care facilities in the Texas Administrative Code.

 

Look for ways to involve the community in assisting these voters by defining a position of Volunteer Voter Assistance Clerk.  Clerks could then go to the facilities and oversee the preparation of mail in ballots to insure the integrity.

 

Develop a recorded script, DVD or other assistive technology that can be used by those people who assist voters with mail in ballots.  A recording can be done in several languages so that the assistant does not have to speak multiple languages.

Comments?  Email me at carolyn@ombuddies.org