Election officials are urging voters to cast 2020 ballots early, due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and postal service delays. In California, more than 4.5 million voters have already returned their mail-in ballots. Over a third of those ballots are from voters ages 65 and up. According to Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, the coronavirus poses a major risk for older American voters.
To date, at least 40% of all COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. have been linked to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Wilkes says the 2.2 million seniors who live in long-term care facilities are particularly important in swing states like Arizona and Florida.
He also notes that seniors are more likely to vote in person compared to other voting blocks, which might prompt difficulties when filling out a mail-in ballot.
Family visits have also been difficult to arrange during the pandemic, with some facilities banning visitations. Wilkes says that families would often visit and help their older relatives cast their ballots.
“This type of assistance is particularly important when the older person has visual issues, or when they have significant hearing issues, or when they get easily confused. And these kinds of conversations take time and patience,” Wilkes says.
Although social media and other technologies could help some seniors, Wilkes says that a lack of understanding and concentration might prevent their use.
Facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding are required to support senior voting, but there is no guarantee that staff are enforcing the requirement.
Seniors have also faced other challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions, including the use of masks. Wilkes says that some seniors use visual cues when trying to understand what someone is saying.
“They can't read lips. And sometimes they don't even know that somebody is talking,” he says. “Many seniors are not going to be able to cast their vote because of these barriers. And it's sad that in their senior years, they can't contribute to an important election like this.”