Sandra W. Reed: Seniors with cognitive impairments have voting rights, too

Attorney Sandra W. Reed answers your life planning questions.

Attorney Sandra W. Reed answers your life planning questions.

Before the 2008 election, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Law and Aging began a program to identify and publicize the policies and strategies that can promote proper access to the polls by those with cognitive impairments. Many who have some cognitive difficulties are still capable of making informed decisions and can effectively exercise their right to vote. However, persons with cognitive impairments may be more vulnerable than others to exploitation.

The ABA’s project bore the imposing title, “Accommodating Cognitive Impairments in Voting: Shaping Clinically and Ethically Sound Institutional and Public Policy. The study had the dual purpose of (1) insuring that those capable can freely exercise their franchise; and (2) protecting the process from having those who may have lost the capacity to make independent decisions marking a ballot that reflects a choice not their own.

The ABA project established a clearinghouse for information that can be accessed by the public online by going to http://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_aging, clicking on “Research and Resources” and then clicking on “Voting and Cognitive Impairment.” Included in the postings is the “Summary of Promising Practices, Resources and Contact Information” for each state.

The Texas segment includes a report by the Texas Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program comparing the voter participation in long-term care facilities in the state in the 2004 and 2008 elections. The Ombudsman Program published a guide with suggestions to help long-term care facilities, their residents and families of residents to vote in Harris County. This guide is posted online at http://tinyurl.com/m27wos.  Those interested in a guide adapted to Somervell County may contact me at swreed2@yahoo.com for a copy.

Do the Voting Two-Step

The voter’s guide encourages residents of long-term facilities to do two-step voting. The “Voting Two-Step” is as simple as the dance.

Step One: Register. You can register at any time but must be registered at least 30 days prior to an election to vote in that election. You must decide whether to use the facility address or a family member’s address for voter registration purposes. The address must be in the county where voting. If not certain whether you are registered, call the Somervell County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office at 254-897-9470 to verify your status.

Step Two: Vote Early. Early voting begins two weeks prior to election days, with the early voting location open in Somervell County, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. All Somervell County polling places are ADA accessible. At the polling place, voters are required to present a voter registration card and one of the following forms of identification: (1) Texas Driver’s license; (2) Texas Election Identification card; (3) Texas Identification card; (4) Texas concealed handgun license — all issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS); (5) US Military Identification card with photo; or (6) US citizen certificate with photo.

Somervell County residents 65 years of age or disabled persons may request a ballot by mail by calling 254-897-9470 or going online to www.votetexas.org  to make this request.

What Residents of Long-Term Care Facilities Can and Cannot Do

A long-term care resident can: (1) ask for assistance from relatives or the facility to verify voter registration status; (2) request a voter registration form and assistance in completing and mailing it; (3) request an application for ballot by mail and assistance in completing and mailing the request form; (4) ask for assistance of a relative or the facility worker to complete the ballot by mail; and (5) ask for assistance from polling place workers in completing a ballot.

Residents must make timely requests and they cannot vote outside the precinct in which they are registered on Election Day.

What Family Members of Long-Term Care Residents Can and Cannot Do

Family members can make certain their loved one is registered to vote in the county and make certain the registration and identification documents are readily available. They can also provide to the loved one a mail-in ballot and assist in its completion. Of course, family members can provide transportation to the polls.

Family members cannot request a mail-in ballot for a loved one without the loved one’s consent. A family member cannot place a vote by proxy. Family members are prohibited from unduly influencing the loved one’s vote. They cannot tell the loved one how to vote or mark a ballot other than as instructed.

What Long-Term Care Facilities Can and Cannot Do

If the resident requests it, a facility attendant can make a mail-in ballot available and assist the resident in filling it out. Facility caregivers can provide or encourage participation in activities that educate residents as to the issues and the qualifications of the candidates. Those working in the facility can help residents maintain voter registration and identification documents to present at the polls.

Facility employees are not allowed to request a mail-in ballot without the resident’s consent. Of course, the same restrictions against influencing or directing votes or marking ballots other than as instructed applied to family members pertain to facility staff as well.

 Local Protection of the Franchise

Local communities are encouraged to survey their own policies and activities to determine if they adequately accommodate persons with cognitive impairment. But the responsibility of protecting seniors with reduced mental capacity should not be left exclusively to the care of facilities or those conducting elections. Families whose loved ones suffer some loss of capacity need to review the procedures and practices in the polling places where their family member resides. Sons and daughters need to discuss with mom or dad the voting experiences the parents have had. In addition, all members of the community need to make themselves aware of the policies and procedures that are being practiced by long-term care facilities in the community to guarantee that their residents can appropriately exercise voting rights.

Sandra W. Reed is an attorney practicing in Glen Rose, of counsel with the Fort Worth elder law firm of Katten & Benson.  Phone: 254-797-0211; email:  swreed2@yahoo.com

 

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