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.

“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….

Medicare Takes a Blow Under GOP’s Major Tax Plan Fix

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 10, 2017

In early December, the GOP-controlled Senate passed by a partisan vote of 51 to 49 its sweeping tax rewrite (with Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee siding with the Democrats and opposing the measure), sending the $1.4 trillion tax package, detailed in a 492 page bill, to the Conference Committee to iron out the differences between the Senate and House bill, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), that was passed by a 227-to-205 vote on November 16, 2017.

While Democrats are technically part of the conference committee, Republicans are yet again hashing out the details behind closed doors on a purely partisan basis. Democrats charge that the GOP lawmakers on the conference committee will look to rubber-stamp whatever their leadership comes up with and do not expect to see any changes to the legislation for the better.

The cores of the House and Senate bills are already very similar: tax cuts for the wealthiest and corporations paid for by middle-class Americans. Republicans are rushing to get legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature before Christmas. While Trump looks forward to the first major legislative accomplishment of his presidency (once signed into law) as a Christmas gift to the nation, those opposing the massive changes to the nation’s US tax code view it as a stocking stuffed with coal.

Congressional insiders expect to see a finalized tax bill in the coming days, and votes in the House mid-next week at the earliest.

Medicare Takes a Blow

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, sitting on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, sees the writing on the wall with the passage of the GOP tax bill. “The Republican tax plan would run up huge deficits, trigger immediate cuts to Medicare, and threaten Social Security and Medicaid down the line,” says the Rhode Island Senator.

Adds, Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), this forces the “the poor, middle class, and elderly to pick up the tab for trillions of dollars in tax breaks that the super-rich and profitable corporations do not need..” If enacted, the GOP tax fix triggers an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare,” he warns, noting that “it blows a $1 trillion hole in the deficit, inviting deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”

Richtman says, “adding insult to injury” both the GOP Senate and House tax bills repeal the Obamacare mandate, which will raise ACA premiums for older adults (age 50-64) by an average of $1,500 in 2019. He notes that the Senate tax bill uses the “Chained CPI” inflation index for calculating deductions and tax brackets, this “setting a dangerous precedent that could spill over into cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security.”

In her December 7 correspondence to Congressional leadership, AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins, representing millions of members who whose health care depends on Medicare, urged lawmakers to work together in a bipartisan fashion to enact tax code legislation that would meet the needs of the older population and arrive at a tax code that is “more equitable and efficient, promotes growth, and produces sufficient revenue to pay for critical national programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.”

Jenkins urged Congress to prevent $25 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare in 2018 that would result from the enactment of H.R. 1 and its $1.5 trillion deficit increase (according to the Congressional Budget Office) since it “would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries.”

“The sudden cut to Medicare provider funding in 2018 would have an immediate and lasting impact, including fewer providers participating in Medicare and reduced access to care for Medicare beneficiaries,” said Jenkins, who warned that health care providers may choose to stop accepting Medicare patients at a time when the Medicare population is growing by 10,000 new beneficiaries each day.

Jenkins also expressed her concern that Medicare Advantage plans and Part D prescription drug plans may charge higher premiums or cost-sharing in future years to make up for the cuts now.

The Devil is in the Details

On the AARP website, Gary Strauss, an AARP staff writer and editor, posted an article on December 6, 2017, “Your 2018 Taxes? Congress Now Deciding,” that identifies specific GOP tax bill provisions that hit older tax payers in their wallets.

According to Strauss, an AARP Public Policy Institute analysis also found that more than one million taxpayers 65 and older would pay higher taxes in 2019, and more than 5 million would see their taxes increase by 2027. More than 5 million seniors would not receive a tax break at all in 2019, and 5.6 million would not see their taxes decrease by 2027.

The House and Senate tax bills also have differing views on the medical expense deduction, used by nearly 75 percent of filers age 50 and older, says Strauss. The Senate plan allows taxpayers to deduct medical expenses exceeding 7.5 percent of their income rather than a current 10 percent — for the next two years. The House tax plan eliminates this deduction. Some 70 percent of filers who use the deduction have incomes below $75,000.

Strauss says that the House bill eliminates the extra standard deduction for those age 65 and up, while the Senate bill retains it. For 2017, that’s $1,250 for individuals, $1,550 for heads of households or $2,500 for couples who are both 65 and older. .

Both Senate and House versions abolish state and local tax deductions, with the exception of up to $10,000 in property taxes. Residents in high-tax states such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, would pay higher taxes, adds Strauss.

For home owners, Strauss notes that the Senate plan leaves interest deduction limits at $1 million, while the House bill lowers the mortgage interest deduction limit to $500,000 and no longer allows it to be used for second homes, says Strauss.. Individuals would also continue to get up to $250,000 tax-free from the sale of a home (up to $500,000 for couples). But, both bills require sellers to live in the property five of the eight years prior to a sale, up from the current requirement of two of the last five years,” adds Strauss.

At press time, dozens of newspapers are reporting that Americans across the nation are protesting the passage of GOP tax bill that makes the biggest changes to the U.S. tax code in 30 years, calling it a “scam.” AARP and NCPSSM are mobilizing their millions of members to protect Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

While Trump told Senators at a lunch meeting held on December 5 at the White House that the Republican tax plan was becoming “more popular,” two recently released polls are telling us a completely different story. According to a Gallup national poll, a majority of independents (56 percent) join 87 percent of Democrats in opposing the tax plan. Only 29 percent of Americans overall approve of the proposed GOP changes to the nation’s tax code. Reflecting Gallup’s finding, the Quinnipiac University national poll found that 53 percent of American voters disapprove of the tax plan, while only 29 approve.

With mid-term Congressional elections less than a year away, Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress continued push to dismantle Obamacare, leaving millions without health care coverage and creating a tax code that would destroy Medicare, may well bring millions of older taxpayers to the polls to clean house. We’ll see.