© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Voting Advocates Seek Access to Mail-In Ballots for TN Nursing Home Residents

Lisa Mason (left) struggled to help her mother, Evelyn, vote in 2022 because of a Tennessee law that affects nursing home residents.
Courtesy of Lisa Mason
Lisa Mason (left) struggled to help her mother, Evelyn, vote in 2022 because of a Tennessee law that affects nursing home residents.

When Lisa Mason moved her aging mother Evelyn from Missouri to a nursing home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. in 2016 to be closer to family, registering Evelyn to vote in the upcoming election was a priority.

“She had always voted, and she thought it was important to vote, and she just wanted to be able to do that,” Lisa says, adding that it was particularly meaningful to her African American mother who witnessed the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

During her first year at the nursing home, Evelyn cast her ballot at the facility as part of Tennessee’s assisted voting system – often referred to as “mobile polling.” In accordance with state law, poll workers representing each of the major political parties visit a nursing home or similar long-term care facility with ballots and oversee their collection.

In 2020’s election, it was different for Evelyn. She was able to vote absentee – by mail – because she was temporarily living in a nursing home outside her county of residence due to the pandemic.

Then last year, Evelyn’s physical health deteriorated back at her original nursing home. To ensure she voted, Lisa again requested an absentee ballot for her mom to fill out at their convenience. Evelyn was recovering from a hospitalization and had trouble getting up in the morning.

“I was just trying to help her vote because she had good days and bad days by then,” Lisa says.

That request was rejected. While Tennessee permits those 60 and older to vote absentee via mail, it excludes residents of nursing homes unless they’re out of their home county at the time of voting. Residents can either opt for the mobile polling method or vote early or in-person at a traditional, physical polling location.

But without the vote-by-mail option, Lisa says she had to take a day off work to assist Evelyn on the day poll workers were scheduled to visit her mom’s facility.

“If I had not been the one to do what I did, I don't believe she would have been able to vote,” Lisa says.

Evelyn has since passed away at the age of 86, but Lisa and some voting rights advocates say residents of nursing homes should have both options – mobile polling and mail-in absentee ballots.

Voting advocates have for years supported mobile polling policies – which exist in some form in 23 states as of 2013 – because it removes barriers for those in nursing homes such as a lack of transportation or health limitations reaching voting locations.

But Ellen Boettcher with the Campaign Legal Center says mobile polling shouldn’t eliminate mail-in ballots as an alternative and that Tennessee’s specific prohibition against them for this population makes it an outlier among states.

“[Tennessee is] making it difficult for some of the people who would need access to absentee voting the most,” Boettcher says.

A proposed bill last legislative session that would have dropped Tennessee’s restriction never made it out of committee.

Tennessee’s Coordinator of Elections, Mark Goins, opposes changing the current law, which was passed more than two decades ago. He says it’s both convenient and protects vulnerable voters.

A spokesperson for Goins said the policy ensures that ballots reach the intended recipients and that they are not ”taken advantage of and pressured to vote in a way that does not reflect their intent.”

Charles Sabatino is the former director of the Commission on Law and Aging at the American Bar Association but now works as an independent consultant. He says mobile polling indeed came about to help nursing home populations not only address issues of access but also security.

But, he adds, not everyone living in a facility needs that level of assistance or oversight, or they might have family members to aid them – like in the case of Evelyn.

“It’s of concern because it deprives these residents of the right that every other citizen who meets the requirements for absentee balloting has to vote absentee,” he says. “That’s a pretty serious deprivation that plainly discriminates against older and disabled persons who happen to live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.”

He also points out that Tennessee permits those who live in a nursing home outside their home county to vote by mail.

“Those people are just as vulnerable to the kind of abuse that this law is being justified upon, but [the state is] not requiring mobile polling for those people so there’s a lot of holes that undermine the rationale for this kind of policy,” Sabatino says.

Neither of the sponsors of last year’s bill to change the law have indicated if they will continue to pursue the legislation, but a spokesperson for state Senator Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, said she’s still interested in looking at the issue.

Due to a transcription error, this post has been updated to correct the word used in a quote from 'think' to 'believe.'

Katie is a part-time WKNO contributor. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org