A wave of onerous state voting requirements has added to the problem of lack of access — like steep ramps or inadequate parking — with an outsized effect on older voters.
In February 2016, Anita Johnson met a woman in Milwaukee fretting that, although she had voted faithfully for decades, she would be unable to cast a ballot in the presidential election.
Her Wisconsin driver’s license was about to expire, and since she was 90 and no longer drove, she wouldn’t renew it. But she had heard about the state’s strict new voter ID law, requiring official photo identification.
Without a license, she worried she was out of luck. Maybe not, said Johnson.
The state coordinator for VoteRiders, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps citizens vote, Johnson pointed out that the state Department of Motor Vehicles could issue a photo ID. Poll workers would accept that as proof of identity.
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On the very last day the would-be voter had a valid license, Johnson drove her to the agency, which issued the necessary state card.
So did she get to vote for president, at 91? “She did,” Johnson said. “I know, because I drove her to the polls.”
Older people vote. In last year’s presidential election, Census Bureau data show, about 64 percent of all adults had registered to vote and 56 percent reported voting.
But among those ages 65 to 74 years old, more than three-quarters had registered and 70 percent voted — a proportion that dropped only slightly in older cohorts. Even among people ages 85 and older, more than 60 percent cast ballots.
Still, we don’t make it easy for them.
Physical barriers at polling places, a longtime obstacle for the elderly and disabled citizens of any age, can prevent older voters’ participation. Voting machines may not accommodate people who use wheelchairs or are visually impaired.
The Government Accountability Office last month reported the results of a survey of 178 polling places used in 2016. Accessibility had improved since 2000, the GAO concluded, but the great majority still had impediments outside — like steep ramps or inadequate parking — or inside that could discourage or exclude disabled voters.
Federal law requires accessibility, but “there’s very little enforcement and resources devoted to ensuring that older Americans and others with disabilities can vote,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
More recently, a wave of onerous state voting requirements has added to the problem, with an outsized effect on older voters, argues a new report by Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Officials in states adopting the requirements usually cite fears of widespread fraud, a concern debunked by researchers and election officials themselves. Nevertheless, older people who’d voted religiously all their adult lives are suddenly encountering barriers that effectively disenfranchise them.
“Needing a photo ID, getting a photo ID, getting access to polling places — there are lots of obstacles for older people,” said Casey, the ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
As voting requirements tighten, “the target may have been younger voters, poor voters, minorities,” said Richard Hasen, a specialist in election law at the University of California, Irvine. “But one of the casualties has been older voters.”
They skew Republican, as it happens. Voters over age 65 backed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012 by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin, and they voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, 53 percent to 45 percent.
Nevertheless, they’ve become collateral damage in the voting eligibility conflicts that have led to protests and multiple lawsuits.
Consider the voter ID laws enacted in 32 states. Many require that the IDs, typically driver’s licenses, be currently valid. But “older Americans are more likely to have expired IDs, or IDs that don’t have their current addresses,” said Weiser.
That can send them scrambling for the documentation that would allow them to get state voter ID cards as alternatives. But finding a birth certificate issued 80 years ago can prove burdensome.
Would-be voters may have to write to another state, may run into trouble if they’ve changed their names, may be unable to travel to state offices or to afford the fees.
“What we’ve discovered on the ground is that people are so confused and intimidated by the complex, ever-changing voter ID laws that they don’t vote even if they have the requisite ID,” said Kathleen Unger, founder of VoteRiders.
Other voting restrictions have also created barriers for older voters. Many counties have closed polling places since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.
Almost every Arizona county closed polling places before last year’s election, for instance, a statewide reduction of 212 polling places, the Leadership Conference Education Fund has reported.
Older voters who can’t drive or easily take public transportation — where it exists — can be stymied when officials shutter polls near their homes with little notice. And with fewer polling places, even older voters who can reach the new ones may encounter forbiddingly long lines.
Moreover, using an absentee ballot has grown more difficult. Some states already limit the acceptable reasons for not voting in person.
Now, new legislation in some states forbids helpers — churches, civic groups, unions — from collecting and mailing absentee ballots, a potential hardship for older voters who can’t get to a post office or mailbox themselves.
How such changes may have affected election results “turns out to be a complicated social-science question,” Hasen said. But it’s also the wrong question, he added: “The focus should be on why any eligible voter should be disenfranchised.”
States could help older voters cast ballots, experts said. Why can’t someone who no longer drives nevertheless use an expired license as a voter ID?
Hasen also suggests allowing voters without acceptable IDs to sign affidavits swearing they are who they say they are. “If I’m lying, you can sue me for perjury,” he said.
Early in-person voting, required in 36 states last year and permitted in three more, gives older voters more time to arrange rides to polls and reduces waiting time when they get there. Mailed ballots and easily obtainable absentee ballots allow participation by those who find travel a hardship.
Sixteen states required curbside voting in 2016, an inexpensive, low-tech solution. “If you lack the physical ability to walk into the polling place, workers will bring a paper ballot and envelope to the car,” Hasen said.
Older people take this civic duty seriously.
On this past Election Day in Edgewater, New Jersey, Roslyn Wilson, 97, took the elevator from her 12th floor apartment to the polling place downstairs. So did her friend and neighbor, Ada, who is 102. They have voted there for years.
A few years back, borough council candidates began discussing moving the polling place from Wilson’s building, home to many seniors, to another location.
“We were all very indignant,” Wilson said. “Few of us have cars. We’d have to walk, which a lot of people can hardly do, or take a bus. Many people would have just not voted.”
Petitions began circulating almost immediately. To widespread relief, the idea quickly died.