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Kohl: We Must Break Down Voting Barriers for Seniors

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC


Committee Considers Poll Accessibility and Impact of Voter ID for Seniors

Today U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) held a hearing on older voters and the various barriers they face in exercising their right to vote, with a specific focus on states participating in the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries. The hearing covered issues of poll accessibility, voting within long-term care settings, and on-going concerns that the Voter ID law currently pending before the Supreme Court could disproportionately disenfranchise seniors. Older individuals as a whole represent a politically-active group, particularly during primary elections which typically attract a lower level of voter turnout. During last week's Nevada primary, 45 percent of the Republican vote and 36 percent of the Democratic vote was comprised of those 60 years of age and older.

"There is no reason for states to fall down on the job of voter accessibility. We know that innovative mechanisms exist to allow older and disabled Americans to vote regardless of their physical abilities," said Chairman Kohl. "If we do not remove the barriers that prevent elderly and disabled citizens from exercising their right to vote, then we are - for all intents and purposes - disenfranchising them."

Today Chairman Kohl and Rules Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to request that the Election Assistance Commission conduct research on voting within long-term care settings and develop voluntary guidelines to help states facilitate such voting. Of the 24 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, only eight of these states facilitate voting in long-term care settings either by setting up public polling locations on the premises, sending election officials into the home to assist seniors, or helping nursing home administrators obtain absentee ballots in advance. The other 16 states currently make no accommodations for voters living in a long-term care setting, and long-term care administrators are offered no direction from election officials as to how they should assist their residents with voting.

Barbara D. Bovbjerg, Director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, discussed issues surrounding senior transportation and mobility, ballot design, and poll site accessibility for the disabled. Older voters with a disability are 39 to 48 percent less likely to vote than their peers without a disability. During the 2000 elections, GAO found that only 16 percent of polling sites surveyed nationwide were fully accessible to people with disabilities. Chairman Kohl has asked GAO to follow-up on their previous study by monitoring the level of accessibility during the 2008 elections. Michael Waterstone, Associate Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, also spoke to challenges with voter accessibility at the polls, the pros and cons to absentee balloting, laws currently in place to safeguard older and disabled voters, and the need for stronger enforcement.

Deborah Markowitz, Vermont's Secretary of State, offered testimony on the role Vermont has played as a leader in expanding voting opportunities for individuals with physical and cognitive impairment. Vermont—which will hold its primary on March 4—has a ‘vote-by-phone' system and is implementing a mobile voting demonstration project to better facilitate voting within long-term care settings. Dr. Jason Karlawish, Associate Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at theUniversity of Pennsylvania, provided an overview of which Super Tuesday states have guidelines to facilitate voting in long-term care settings, which do not, and the resulting implications. He also laid out a model system for voting in long-term care settings.

Wendy Weiser, Deputy Director of the Democracy Project at NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, conveyed to the committee how the Voter ID law under consideration by the Supreme Court unduly burdens seniors and why it should be overturned, providing examples of seniors that would be disenfranchised due to the law. A 2005 study by the University of Wisconsin found that 23 percent of people age 65 and older in the state of Wisconsin - roughly 177,000 older voters - do not have a driver's license or other photo ID.

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