Fumi Munekiyo has voted in every presidential election since 1944, so nothing — her occasional memory loss, the COVID-19 pandemic, her assisted living facility’s visitor restrictions — was going to stop her this year.
But she needed some assistance. Family members aren’t allowed to visit in person, so staff members at Nikkei Manor in Seattle’s Chinatown International District found the ballot in her mail, gave her a pen and then arranged a Zoom call so Munekiyo’s daughter, Margaret Mizumoto, could help. With Mizumoto’s grandchildren — and Munekiyo’s great-grandchildren — looking on, the 97-year-old filled in the bubbles for the races she cared most about, like the presidential race and the Harborview Medical Center measure.
“It was meaningful and heartening to have both generations, and even though it was screen time, it was the best form of communication we have right now with the elderly,” said Mizumoto, who lives in Federal Way. “It was still very worthwhile, and important for my mother.”
The 65-and-older population has long been a civically involved group that politicians can count on as consistent voters. But the group is also among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and the pandemic has necessitated restrictions at retirement communities and other long-term care facilities, including monthslong lockdowns.
Concerns have emerged in states across the U.S. over how people over 65 — especially those who live in areas with COVID-19 restrictions — will vote, citing long lines at nonaccessible polling sites or confusion over how to obtain a ballot in advance. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services affirmed in early October that nursing homes must ensure residents are able to exercise their right to vote, even though pandemic limitations may make it more difficult than in past elections.
Washington’s mail-in voting system eliminates many of the obstacles other states might face, but the pandemic changed how some senior communities have navigated the election cycle. Newsletters have replaced big gatherings in lounges for residents to learn more about down-ballot candidates. Residents who used to count on family members to help them fill out their ballots now have to get their questions answered through a video session or a staff member.
Those differences don’t appear to have affected turnout. In King County, 75% of registered voters 65 and older had returned ballots as of Thursday — 10 percentage points higher than overall turnout, according to King County Elections spokesperson Halei Watkins.
In North Seattle, a retirement community is buzzing with anticipation over the upcoming election. A committee of residents at Aljoya Thornton Place made sure that each of their neighbors got a voter’s pamphlet. Another resident created an hourlong television show about the Electoral College on the in-house TV channel. And every Friday since July, a group has held a protest outside the building in support of civil rights and urging drivers and passersby to vote.
“The seniors’ vote counts,” said Susan Levy, a resident and member of the committee leading the voter initiative in the retirement community.
Since he and his wife moved to Aljoya Thornton Place, Bob Adriance has led the site’s “Great Decisions” discussion program. “Great Decisions” is produced by the Foreign Policy Association each year and identifies eight current foreign policy issues for groups to discuss. He has also led a civics class and talks on the Constitution, but all have been postponed.
“A lot of people are very concerned about the election, not just the polls, but what happens if the president decides he doesn’t want to leave office, all the things you hear in the news,” said Adriance, a retired history teacher. “There’s no way that anyone can get a meeting organized where people can have a discussion, because we can’t have a group of more than three or four people.”
Instead, with the help of Aljoya, he videotaped a talk on eight reform options for the Electoral College for his neighbors to watch on their TVs. Meanwhile, Levy and the voting committee made sure that other residents knew to register to vote, since many have moved there from out of state or from another Washington county. They made a concerted effort to be nonpartisan, said Marian Wolfe, another member.
“The biggest thing was to build confidence” in the voting system, she said.
Some seniors expressed concern about the ballot’s signature requirement because an injury or loss of mobility can impact whether the signature matches an older one. Voters can make any mark on the signature line, as long as two witnesses also sign to verify identity, said Watkins, of King County Elections. That avoids any issues with signature verification.
In Gig Harbor, residents of Heron’s Key have attended Zoom meetings with candidates that are open to the public, instead of trying to host anything in person like they might have in the past, said Mary Kazlusky, president of the retirement community’s residents association. A bus reconfigured with plexiglass around each seat takes residents to a nearby dropbox.
Nearly every resident has an “I voted” sign, she added.
“We have provided everything we can possibly think of to get people to vote,” she said.