At 94, Mary Insalaco has voted in every presidential election dating back to the 1940s. And despite being isolated in a nursing home, she wasn't about to let that stop her this year.
"That's one thing I've always believed in. Your vote counts. Even though it's one, it counts. They add up," Insalaco said.
Mary is used to voting in person. But because of COVID-19 restrictions, she can't really leave the Jewish Home. So her daughter, Carol Britt, came here with Mary's mail-in ballot. They talked through the glass during a window visit and discussed how Mary wanted to vote.
"Today she's going to put her signature on it that this is her choice," Britt said, holding Mary's ballot.
"My daughter brought me my papers here, I signed them, filled them out with her and gave it back to her and got my little voting sticker and I proudly wore it," Insalaco said.
Mary's fortunate to have family nearby to assist her. But for many nursing home residents, that's not the case. And that has some advocates worried about the roadblocks facing seniors as we approach Election Day.
"So it's very much like we have a train barreling down the track and the brakes are not working," Nina Kohn said.
Kohn is a law professor at Syracuse University and a scholar in elder law.
Brett Davidsen: "Are they being disenfranchised?"
Kohn: "In many cases, yes. A resident of a nursing home needs substantial assistance typically to be able to vote and when that assistance isn't forthcoming, as a practical matter, they won't be able to vote."
Normally if more than 25 absentee ballots are requested from a single nursing home, the Board of Elections is required to send staff members in to help the residents. But that rule was suspended this year, putting more responsibility on nursing home staff, many of which are already stretched thin by added safety requirements.
"We can't help them fill them out. We're relying on a social worker or a staff member to do that and take an oath and help them fill out the ballots if they need to and we're picking them back up," Monroe County Board of Elections Commissioner Lisa Nicolay said.
Here at the Jewish Home, they've assisted nearly 100 residents filling out ballots.
"Staff members through our recreational therapy team and social work team have touched base with each one of the residents and asked them if they wanted to exercise that right and privilege to vote," Meghan Bevins said.
Bevins is Director of Therapeutic Recreation at Jewish Senior Life and says they made it a priority to make sure seniors could vote but admits the pandemic created some challenges.
"Much more time has been spent with the residents, but of course, it's extremely important," Bevins added.
In the past, nursing facilities like the Jewish Home were also polling sites—making it convenient for seniors to "go to the polls" without leaving the building. That option is not available this year because of the state lockdown.
When we asked the state about possible voting concerns, Jill Montag, a spokesperson from the New York State Department of Health said in a statement, "Under federal rules, nursing homes have a responsibility to put a plan in place so residents can vote, and we are committed to protecting both New Yorkers' health and their right to vote this election season..."
Kohn says it's less important how seniors vote, as long as their rights are protected.
"So, I don't think we need to be concerned if people can't vote in person. What we need to be really concerned about is if people can't vote."
Stephen B. Hanse, Esq. President & CEO of NYS Health Facilities Association/NYS Center for Assisted Living sent the following statement on the issue:
“Ensuring that long term care residents can exercise their constitutional right to vote is of utmost importance. Nursing homes and assisted living providers throughout New York have been doing everything possible to ensure residents can get the information and materials they need to participate in the election, while also staying safe from COVID-19. As in years past, social work and activities departments, among others, work closely with residents and their families or legal guardians to exercise their right to vote.”
Jill Montag, Public Information Officer for the New York State Department of Health provided the following on the issue:
Statement: "Under federal rules, nursing homes have a responsibility to put a plan in place so residents can vote, and we are committed to protecting both New Yorkers' health and their right to vote this election season. During this global pandemic, Governor Cuomo has taken unprecedented action to keep New Yorkers safe as they vote, including expanding access to absentee ballots and ensuring they can be dropped off at County Boards of Election, early voting locations, and Election Day poll sites. Absentee ballots have been and remain a safe and secure way to vote -- and thanks to these reforms are easier to use than ever."