Voter reform must include accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities

Published in RINewsToday on May 17, 2021

It’s over 540 days until the November 8, 2022 mid-term elections. The clock is ticking, say voter rights advocates, who are gearing up to push back at voting bills they see as restrictive being introduced at multiple state houses.  

As of March 24, 2021, GOP State legislators, responding to claims of voter fraud and election irregularities in last year’s Presidential election, have introduced 361 bills seen as restrictive by voter rights advocates in 47 states. “That’s 108 more than the 253 similar bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month,” according to data compiled by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote),” says the nonpartisan law and policy institute, noting that in some cases “a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects”.

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are pushing back at GOP efforts they see as “suppressing voting” and introduced H.R. 1, For the People Act, which would be intended to “expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, end partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics for federal lawmakers”.  The bill is considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting in a generation, and is opposed by GOP lawmakers, who call it overreaching.

Fix Voter Access Issues for Seniors, and Persons with Disabilities

Although newspapers regularly cover both voter security and voter rights issues, voter access issues impacting seniors and persons with disabilities don’t receive adequate ink. 

Now, a national report’s findings reveal that some obstacles still exist for disabled voters at the polls. The recently released U.S. Election Commission (EAC)’s comprehensive 52-page national report, “Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections,” identified accessibility issues for voters with disabilities.  The study focused on polling place access, mail and absentee voting accessibility, election administration challenges, COVID-19 obstacles, and community involvement.

As the EAC plans for future elections, this data will be crucial in helping officials adopt new voting technologies and address the ever-growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” EAC Chairman Ben Hovland said, in a February 16, 2021 statement announcing the release of the report. “We are proud of election officials’ accomplishments during an especially difficult election season. This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he said.

The EAC spearheaded the study under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The goal of the study was to analyze the 2020 election experience for voters with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on a similar 2012 study also conducted by the EAC in conjunction with Professors Schur and Kruse, of Rutgers University, the project launched immediately after the 2020 general election.

The 2020 study engaged 2,569 respondents including 1,782 voters with disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities. As in 2012, the oversampling of voters with disabilities was designed to produce a sample large enough for more accurate measurements and reliable breakdowns by demographic variables and type of disability.

Compared to 2012, overall results show election officials made great progress serving voters with disabilities and ensuring they could cast a private and independent ballot. Obstacles continue to exist, but improvements were evident.

According to the researchers, voting difficulties among people with disabilities declined markedly from 2012 to 2020. About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020. This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012.

The study’s findings indicated that among people with disabilities who voted in person, 18 percent reported difficulties, compared to 10 percent of people without disabilities. The disability figure is down from 30 percent in 2012.

During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities. One in seven (14 percent) of voters with disabilities using a mail ballot needed assistance or encountered problems in voting, compared to only 3 percent of those without disabilities. 

The researchers found that five of six (83 percent) of voters with disabilities voted independently without any difficulty in 2020, compared to over nine of ten (92 percent) of voters without disabilities. Voting difficulties were most common among people with vision and cognitive impairments.

Close to 75 percent of voters with disabilities voted with a mail ballot or early in-person in 2020. This represents a significant increase from 2012 and is higher than the two-thirds of non-disabled voters who did so in 2020, say the researchers. No doubt the pandemic influenced the increase.

Finally, the researchers note that people with disabilities voted at a 7 percent lower rate than people without disabilities of the same age, pointing toward a continuing disability gap in voter turnout.

Senate Moves to Remove Barriers for Seniors and Disabled

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities.  This legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Notably, an all Democratic sponsorship at this time.

This legislative action was triggered by a Government Accountability Study that found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process,” he said.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” adds Klobuchar. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” she said.

“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.

The Accessible Voting Act would create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency training for election officials and poll workers.  It would establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting. Finally, it would provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

As Congress grapples with legislation coming from both parties to tighten voter security on one hand, and ease voter restrictions on the other, it will be a significant failure to not also address the issues of accessibility for our population facing aging and disability obstacles.

Cicilline Moves to Re-Establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging

Published in RINewsToday on April 30, 2021

Congressman David Cicilline is poised to offer a resolution to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, whose work came to an end in early January 1993, at the conclusion of the 102nd Congress.

The Washington, DC-based Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), a coalition of 69 aging organization, has recently called on the House to support Cicilline’s measure when introduced, “which focuses on the well-being of America’s older population and is committed to representing their interests in the policy-making arena”.

“Now is the opportune time to reestablish the House Aging Committee,” says LCAO Chair, Max Richtman, who serves as President and CEO of the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), in an endorsement letter sent to the Rhode Island Congressman on March 30, 2021, detailing the graying of America. 

“Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S.—or 20 percent of the country—will be age 65 or older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act also increases,” he said, stressing the importance of this select committee.

The resolution to approve the House Aging Committee was passed on October 8, 1974, by a 299–44 margin in the House. Its legislative duties expired during the 103rd Congress, as the House leadership was under pressure to reduce its internal costs and to streamline the legislative process. Initially, the House panel had 35 members, but would later grow to 65 members.

Those opposing reauthorizing the House Aging Committee would say that its elimination would slash wasteful spending, after all, the chamber already had 12 standing committees with jurisdiction over aging issues. On the other hand, advocates warned that the staff of these committees did not have time to broadly examine aging issues as the select committee did.

In a March 31, 1993 article published in the St. Petersburg Times, reporter Rebecca H. Patterson reported that Staff Director Brian Lutz, of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment, stated that “during its 18 years of existence the House Aging Committee had been responsible for about 1,000 hearings and reports.”

The Fourth Time “Hopefully” is the Charm…

Over 28 years after the House Democratic Leadership’s belt-tightening efforts to save $1.5 million resulted in the termination of the House Aging Committee, Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline is poised to reintroduce legislation to reestablish the House Aging panel, active from 1974 until 1993.

More than five years ago, Cicilline had introduced H. Res. 758 during the 114th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee. Rhode Island Congressman Langevin and 27 Democratic lawmakers out of 435 House members became cosponsors. But it caught the eye of the co-chairs of the Seniors Task Force (later renamed the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Aging & Families), Congresswomen Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The lawmakers also signed onto supporting this resolution.

Correspondence penned by Cicilline urged House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House GOP leadership to support House Res. 758. Ultimately, Ryan blocked the resolution from being considered and no legislative action was taken in the GOP-controlled House chamber. 

With House Speaker Ryan still retaining the control of the House during the 115th Congress, Cicilline’s H. Res.160 would not gain traction. At that time only 27 Democratic lawmakers stepped forward to become cosponsors, the resolution attracting no support from House GOP lawmakers.  

For the third time, during the 116th Congress, Cicilline would again introduce H. Res. 821 to reestablish the House Aging Committee. Even with the Democrats retaking the House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi taking control of the chamber’s legislative agenda, the resolution would not get a committee vote, again blocking it from reaching the floor for a vote.

During the 117th Congress, Cicilline is not taking “no” for an answer, and continues his push to bring back the House Aging Committee.  Once his resolution is thrown into the legislative hopper, it will be referred to the House Committee on Rules for mark-up and if passed will be considered by the full House. It’s expected to be just 245 words like the previous ones introduced during the last three Congresses.  

The Resolution: Short and Sweet

Cicilline’s resolution would reestablish a House Aging Committee without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different than when the select committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts impacted legislation taken up by standing committees.

According to the Congressional Research Service, it is relatively simple to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other issues that need to be address.  Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

This resolution would also authorize the House Aging Committee to study the use of all practicable means and methods of encouraging the development of public and private programs and policies which will assist seniors in taking a full part in national life and which will encourage the utilization of the knowledge, skills, special aptitudes, and abilities of seniors to contribute to a better quality of life for all Americans.

It would also allow the House Aging Committee to develop policies that would encourage the coordination of both governmental and private programs designed to deal with problems of aging and to review any recommendations made by the President or by the White House Conference on Aging in relation to programs or policies affecting seniors.

“After a lifetime of working hard and playing by the rules, Rhode Island seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind. Re-establishing the House Aging Committee will help make this goal a reality. From protecting Social Security and Medicare to lower the costs of housing and prescription drugs, this Committee will help ensure we can deliver better results for seniors here in Rhode Island and across America,” says Cicilline.

Looking Back

According to NCPSSM’s Richtman, who served as staff director for the Senate Special Committee on Aging from 1987 to 1989, the House Aging Committee historically served as a select committee that fostered bipartisan debate from various political and philosophical viewpoints to promote political consensus that, in turn, impacted the legislation that was taken up in authorizing committees. This select committee would have an opportunity to more fully explore a range of aging issues and innovations that cross Committee jurisdiction, while holding field hearings, convening remote hearings, engaging communities and promoting understanding and dialogue.

While seeing the value of the House Aging Committee, Richtman speculates that regardless of which party is in the majority, the challenge of re-establishing the select committee is that the Legislative Branch appropriation would require that existing House standing committees forgo some funding and staff to create a budget and staff for the Aging Committee. Given that the Aging Committee could have no legislative jurisdiction; the authorizing committees would not lose legislative power.

Robert Blancato, president of Matz, Blancato, and Associates, who was the longest-serving staff person on the original House Aging Committee, from 1977 to 1993, sees the need to bring back the House Aging Committee. “It provided a deeper examination of issues affecting older adults through hearings, investigations, and reports. Every member of the committee was also a member of a standing committee and could take their expertise to into that work,” he noted.

Blancato, who served with three chairs — Will Randall (D-MO), Claude Pepper (D-FL) and Edward Roybal (D-CA), warns that a “floodgate problem” may well derail Cicilline’s efforts to get his resolution passed. “You create one and there will be pressure to create more,” says Blancato. But, bringing back the House Aging Committee is extremely important because there is no “stated expertise in any current standing committee [to investigate] on aging issues,” he adds.

America’s aging population warrants reestablishing the House Aging Committee, says Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, M.S.W., Ph.D., Social Welfare and Public Policy Director, Center for Policy Research on Aging at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “By 2029, all 80-plus individuals born between l946 and l964 will be 65 years of age and over. These so-called “aging baby boomers” will create challenges and opportunities that the Congress must examine, understand and respond to with legislation, oversight and partnerships with government, stakeholders and advocates,” says Torres Gill, who served as the select committee’s staff director from 1985 to 1987.

Under the Chairmanship of Congressmen Roybal and the partnership with the ranking minority member, Congressman Rinaldi (R-TX), Torres-Gil saw first-hand the tremendous influence that this select committee had on influencing and motivating House members to promote thoughtful responses to the needs of older Americans, “It served as one of the few venues for bi-partisanship and long-term planning on complex issues facing older persons,” he stated.

According to Torres-Gil, the complexities of an aging society will increase given the pandemic, the growing voices of immigrants, ethnic and minority groups and the challenges for ensuring the financial viability of legacy entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act.  “Now is the time to bring back this vital congressional “thought leader” on legislative action for the aging and diversity of the United States,” he says.

To illustrate the importance of the House Aging Committee, Bill Benson, Staff Director of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing and Consumer Interests from 1987 to 1990, (chaired by Congressmen Don Bonker (D-WA) and later James Florio (D-NJ), points to his subcommittee’s work on housing issues. “Both before, during, and after my tenure with the subcommittee, we were able to dig deeply into a multitude of significant housing-related programs and problems facing older Americans. During my tenure alone we conducted at least a dozen hearings just on housing, addressing affordability, quality and appropriateness, contributing significantly to legislative action,” he said.

“I am certain that in just that over two-year period we held far more hearings on housing and aging than have been conducted, in total, in the nearly three decades since. During this interum, there has been almost no congressional attention to housing for the elderly. It is no surprise that today we see homelessness among older adults increasing rapidly, among many other housing problems facing older Americans,” adds Benson, stressing that resurrecting the House Aging Committee is crucial to housing policy for the elderly, along with so many other crucial issues.

The Amazing Legacy of Fiery Senior Advocate Claude Pepper

Kathleen Gardner served as Claude Pepper’s staff director of the Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care, from 1984 until his death in 1989, and continued to serve Pepper’s successor, Edward Roybal, until the House Aging Committee was abolished.  She was the last surviving member of the Subcommittee, boxing up and archiving its papers for delivery to the Tallahassee, Florida-based Claude Pepper Foundation.   

According to Gardner, few know that it was Pepper who was largely responsible for sponsoring or cosponsoring legislation to establish the majority of the Institutes of Health (including the National Heart and Cancer Institutes, the Deafness and Arthritis Institutes, the National Institute of Mental Health and six other Institutes). “One of his last legislative improvements to the National Institutes of Health was the establishment of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine – without which the mapping of the human genome – which will unlock so many of the mysteries of disease — would not have been possible, she adds. 

Between 1982 to 1990, Melanie Modlin served as a Professional Staff Member for the full Committee and ultimately became Gardner’s Deputy Director for the Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care.  She remembered how the House Aging Committee investigated “Diploma mills,” by setting up its own diploma mill, then a phony accreditation to give the investigators credence.  The select committee also held one of the first hearings on Alzheimer’s disease, which was just beginning to become a household word. 

Modlin recalled that her Subcommittee was tasked with creating a universal health care bill. “Once more, Pepper and the House Aging Committee was a step ahead of the curve,” she says, noting that this debate has come back to Congress.

As newspapers in communities across the nation curtail or jettison their investigative teams, the House Aging Committee has a proven track record and reputation of investigating aging issues is a sound reason as to why the Select committee should be reactivated, says Modlin, especially with the rapid growth of America’s aging population.  

Robert S. Weiner, President, Robert Weiner Associates News, who was a close friend and confidant of Pepper, clearly knew the importance and impact of Pepper’s House Aging Committee on the daily quality of life of seniors. Weiner, who served as Staff Director for the Subcommittee on Health and Long-term care from 1975 to 1977 and Chief of Staff of the full Aging Committee, from 1976 to 1980, remembered, “I was thunderbolt struck when [GOP House Speaker] Newt Gingrich abolished the Aging Committee – the Senate wisely kept theirs.”

“Congressman Claude Pepper used the House Aging Committee as a force for the elderly. Bringing it back would be of immeasurable help regardless of which party has the White House in assuring the best health care programs possible, stopping any raiding of the Social Security Trust Fund, and protecting seniors,” says Weiner.

The House Aging Committee prodded Congress to act in abolishing forced retirement, investigating nursing home abuses, monitoring breast screening for older women, improving elderly housing, and bringing attention to elder abuse by publishing a number of reports, including “Elder Abuse: An Examination of a Hidden Problem and Elder Abuse: A National Disgrace,” and “Elder Abuse: A Decade of Shame and Inaction.” The Committee’s work would also lead to increased home care benefits for the aging and establishing research and care centers for Alzheimer’s Disease.

“One of the best known aging accomplishments of Claude Pepper was to end mandatory retirement by amending the Age Discrimination provision in the Employment Act, remembered Weiner, noting that this would get him the cover of Time Magazine with the tag line the “Spokesman for the Elderly.” 

Kentucky Fried Chicken King makes his mark

It was Pepper’s idea to bring in Col. Harland Sanders as a witness. Many still remember the 81-year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken King, wearing his trademark spotless white suit and black string tie, and testifying against mandatory retirement in federal jobs,” said Weiner, noting that a few years later it would end up also in the private sector, and the bill would pass 359 to 2 in the House and 89 to 10 in the Senate, with President Carter signing the bill despite strong opposition of the Business Roundtable and big labor, he said.

Weiner also noted that among the House Aging Committee’s other accomplishments under Pepper’s Chairmanship was legislation creating standards for supplemental insurance and holding hearings to expose cancer insurance duplication. “Witnesses were literally forced to wear paper bags over their heads to avoid harassment by the insurance companies. That legislation became law,” he said.

As a long-time Washington insider, Weiner sees the best avenue of bringing the House Aging Committee back from the dead is to get House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her leadership team, Congressmen Steny Hoyer (D-MD and James E. Clyburn (D-SC), to support Cicilline’s resolution.  “It’s not just a matter of ‘getting them to say ok – it’s using the right way to do it that works. While you can get groups to support your efforts to bring back the House Aging Committee, you must verbally make the case to House leadership,” says Weiner.  Looking back, “that’s how Pepper always did it – he’d pull people to a place on the floor and talk with them.”

“If he gets those three, or even one or two, and they tell the other two – done deal – it goes to the floor of the caucus for a vote,” notes Weiner.

In Summary…

Over thirty years after the death of Claude Pepper (D-FL) in 1989, no national advocate has emerged to take the place of the former Chairman of the House Aging Committee, who served as its chair for six years. As a result, House Democratic lawmakers and aging advocates are forced every new session of Congress to fend off proposals to cut aging programs, Social Security, and Medicare. 

Gardner believes that Cicilline’s efforts to reestablish this needed Select Committee would be a salute to Pepper, the nation’s most visible spokesperson for seniors, and more importantly to his desire to establish a “legislative voice” for our nation’s most vulnerable population – our senior citizens.”   

Hopefully House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will agree with Gardner’s assessment.  If only for the sake of the nation’s seniors.

For details about the Claude Pepper Foundation, go to https://claudepepperfoundation.org/about/claude-pepper-center/

“Georgia on My Mind”

Published by RINewsToday on March 29, 2021

Rewriting election rules has ramifications for voting accessibility of older adults. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans now control 30 state houses with 18 being controlled by the Democrats, one legislature being nonpartisan. As the country looks at its election and voting rules, the background has been set for partisan politics of the highest order.

With this backdrop, legislation is being drafted to rewrite election laws. These steps could disproportionately impact minority communities. According to the New York City-based Brennan Center for Justice, as of Feb. 19, 2021, there are 253 bills with provisions that could restrict voting access pending in 43 states. More than a quarter of these voting and election bills address absentee voting procedures.

The legislation restricting voting includes creating stricter voter ID requirements, creating additional restrictions on voter registration, prohibiting the harvesting of ballots where a third party collects and delivers absentee ballots to the Board of Elections, reducing some opportunities to vote early, barring felons from voting, and reducing the number of polls. Some state legislatures are expected to re-draw legislative districts which could also have the effect of diluting voting power and representation of specific groups.

The Nation’s Long History of Absentee Voting

During the 2020 Presidential election, there were more than 50 challenges claiming electoral fraud and irregularities in absentee voting were made in various courts, but most not upheld. This method of voting has been around for hundreds of years, though it is more actively used today. In the past one had to attest to their physical inability to go to the poll or that they would be away from home on election day.

According to Becca Damanta, senior research associate of the Washington, DC-based Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive think tank, the earliest record of absentee voting occurred in Dec. 1775 when a group of soldiers from the Continental Armory sent a letter to their town asking to absentee vote in a local election. At a meeting, the town agreed to count these votes “as if the men were present themselves,” says Damanta. Pennsylvania allowed soldiers to absentee vote during the War of 1812 but this law would be declared unconstitutional in 1862. She noted that New Jersey had a similar law dating back to 1815, but this law was repealed in 1820.

Damanta stated that the first major use of absentee ballots occurred during the Civil War when Wisconsinbefore the 1862 midterm elections, enacted legislation to allow armory officers to conduct the vote in their camps and then forward the ballots to the governor and Secretary of State.

“By the 1864 presidential election, 19 Northern states had legislation allowing soldiers to vote away from home, either through polling places in the field or by mailing ballots home. Some soldiers were also allowed to vote by proxy whereby a soldier designated someone at home to cast his vote. By the time the election had concluded, about 150,000 of the 1 million Union soldiers voted absentee.

Damanta added: “After the Civil War ended, the states gradually passed new laws to expand absentee voting to civilians. Between 1911 and 1924, 45 of the 48 states adopted some kind of absentee voting. In some cases, these laws required voters to have a specific reason or excuse to vote absentee, such as travel or illness. Today, registered voters can vote absentee in all 50 states, though 16 states still required a documented ‘excuse’ to do so.”

The Importance of Casting a Vote by Absentee Ballot for Seniors

In a March 2021 issue brief, “The Importance of Mail-in Ballots to Seniors,” the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), noted that just before the COVID-19 pandemic, “five states were already holding entirely mail-in elections — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., allowed ‘no excuse’ mail-in absentee voting. Sixteen states allowed voters to cast a ballot by mail if they had an excuse. In the 2016 presidential election, about one in four voters cast their votes via ballots mailed to them.”

According to NCPSSM, seniors like the ease and comfort of vote-by-mail. “Those who are immobile or sick can request mail ballots, as can those who cannot drive or lack access to mass transit. Mail ballots represent a way for those individuals to exercise their rights at election time in a convenient way, with over 60% of seniors age 65 and older living in states which currently use all mail-in voting systems support moving all elections to mail-in voting,” says NCPSSM’s issue brief. 41% of voters age 50-64 and 55% of voters over age 65 voted by mail in the 2020 election.

While some lawmakers alleged widespread absentee ballot fraud in the president 20020 election, NCPSSM cited studies that found vote-by-mail to be consistently free of fraud. “A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study says it found only 0.00006% of 250 million votes by mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent. Additionally, scholars at Stanford University analyzing 1996-2018 data in California, Utah, Washington found vote-by-mail did not advantage one political party over another, noted NCPSSM.

In 2020, NCCPSM noted that many seniors took advantage of the easier voting when staying safe during the pandemic was a competing, if not greater concern. Voting-by-mail seemed destined to become a convenient choice liked by many, regardless of the inability to call close races on election night, with some races going to lengthy counts of ballots in boxes stored in a variety of locations. This election year was the most unusual ever, and standards were developed quickly in the year where a pandemic and presidential election were occurring simultaneously. It’s clear that if these practices are to become permanent, details should be shored up for security and confidence purposes.

At press time, while GOP-controlled state legislatures move to restrict voting on vote-by mail procedures, it becomes even more important now to be sure that while the security of the vote is shored up, the constitutional right to vote is not impeded – especially for the housebound, the frail, and the elderly.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, signed S.B. 202, a 96-page bill that would shorten timelines, drop box restrictions, make it easier for state officials to have control of local election boards, ban third-party groups from sending absentee-ballot applications to voters, end the use of portable polling sites, and requiring a either a driver’s license or state ID or a photo copy of their identification to cast a mail in ballot. Water could still be available in a self-serve table, but no longer would be able to be given out by volunteers representing one candidate or another.  

After passage on March 25, Gov. Kemp stated, “I knew, like so many of you, that significant reforms to our elections were needed.”  He stated, “Georgia will take a step ensuring our elections are secure, accessible and fair. Republicans defend the law saying that it will preserve the state’s election integrity and root out election fraud. Some voting rights advocates view Georgia’s new law as a GOP attempt to influence an election by suppressing voter turnout, particularly from minorities. Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight Action, stated, “Now, more than ever, Americans must demand federal action to protect voting rights as we continue to fight against these blatantly unconstitutional efforts that are nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0.” The Jim Crow comment has become a Democratic speaking point as it was later repeated by President Biden when referencing voter ballot changes.

Now, attention turns to Washington, DC to block GOP efforts to restrict voting in states by the passage of bills in state legislatures. The House recently passed H.R. 1, “For the People Act of 2021,” considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. election law in a generation. The House proposal, now being considered by the Senate, can block state houses from taking steps seen as taking away the voting rights of their residents. Their legislative proposal contains a set of national mail-in voting standards, guaranteeing no-excuse mail-in voting. The act requires states to give every voter the option to vote by mail, calls for prepaid postage for all election materials and state-provided drop boxes for federal races.

Currently, 60 votes are needed to pass H.R.1’s Senate companion measure. President Joe Biden has indicated that he would support a change of current Senate rules to allow H.R.1 to pass by eliminating the filibuster that would reduce the number of votes for this legislation to pass. 

Stay tuned….