Jerry Davich: Should a person with dementia be allowed to vote?
Jerry Davich email@example.com October 27, 2012 6:34PM
Lake County absentee ballots sit in bins after being tallied Tuesday evening May 6, 2008 at the Lake County Government Center. | File Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 29, 2012 6:19AM
The 75-year-old woman struggled with dementia, for years not even recognizing her own family when they visited her nursing home.
She also couldn’t write legibly, let alone sign her name or decipher which political candidate to vote for in last year’s municipal election.
Yet when her family went to place their vote at the polling place last November, on Election Day, the register log showed the woman’s name and a red mark on it, stamped at the Lake County Government Center.
Somehow, shockingly, she had voted by absentee ballot in a Merrillville municipal election.
“My aunt hadn’t voted in seven years and she surely wasn’t in her right mind to vote in the 2011 election,” said the woman’s nephew, who asked to not be identified. “We think this is a case of voting fraud. Her vote was stolen.”
Sure enough, I obtained a copy of the woman’s voter profile and it shows her casting her absentee vote on Nov. 8, 2011, Election Day. Her previous voting activity took place in the 2004 general election, a seven-year gap in between votes.
“We wondered how this could have happened knowing my aunt’s situation,” her nephew told me.
As mandated by law, absentee “traveling boards” routinely visit registered voters who are physically unable to venture out to vote, or who are confined in nursing homes, hospitals and so on. It’s a great service for those voters who want to contribute to the voting process but who simply cannot do it on their own, for whatever reason.
The bipartisan traveling boards are mandated to be comprised of one Democrat and one Republican to ensure no funny business takes place.
According to Indiana law on absentee voting via a traveling board, one of the following must apply:
“The voter expects to be confined, due to illness or injury, or the voter expects to be caring for a confined person at a private residence, on Election Day.”
“The voter is a voter with disabilities and believes their polling place is not accessible to them.”
“The ballot will be delivered to you by a bipartisan absentee voter board who will be able to assist you with your ballot.”
And, on a side note, voters voting by traveling board are not required to show photo identification.
“Our travel board ladies are the ones who go out to the nursing homes to assist the voters. No one can fill the ballot out for them,” said Sundae Schoon, co-director of Porter County Voter Registration. Those same women are trained to “read” elderly or disabled voters to make sure they are mentally capable of voting, Schoon said. “If they do not look like or act like they are able to vote, then they are challenged or not (allowed) to vote,” she added. The women also work with facility administrators to determine which voters are capable or not.
Those same women are trained to “read” elderly or disabled voters to make sure they are mentally capable of voting, Schoon said.
“If they do not look like or act like they are able to vote, then they are challenged or not (allowed) to vote,” she added.
The women also work with facility administrators to determine which voters are capable or not.
“What kind of traveling board is this we have, getting people who are vulnerable to agree to vote for someone because they just ask?” the woman’s nephew said. “We wonder if they bring cookies or something to bribe the people for their votes?”
“This is just another example of why Lake County has the reputation it does.”
‘Extremely rare case’
I contacted Lake County Election Board attorney Jim Wieser, who said he has never heard of such an incident.
“It’s an extremely rare case that causes concern to me,” he said.
As well it should, even if it’s a rarity, an anomaly or an accident. However, because it happened in Lake County, Indiana, most of us would first think corruption, voter fraud and stolen votes.
Wieser said the woman’s voter registration should have been purged or labeled inactive because all those years of inactivity. But it wasn’t for whatever reason.
Back in 2003 and 2004, roughly 100,000 names were purged from the rolls in a massive overhaul of the system, he said. But since the woman last voted in 2004, her name remained on the roll, obviously until 2011.
Election laws don’t specifically differentiate on what type of “disability” pertains to absentee voters who need assistance from traveling boards. Usually, the disability is a physical one, not mental.
Also, Wieser noted, traveling boards only pay a visit on request from either a voter, a family member or a facility administrator. The boards don’t simply “pop in” to collect votes.
Still, the traveling board somehow managed to secure a vote from the old woman even though her mind was not at all sound, her family insists.
Maybe she was having a “good day,” I suggested. Maybe not. What are the odds, after years of not even recognizing her own family?
“If the facility she was in condoned this type of activity, several restrictions should be in place for residents to be allowed to vote,” the nephew said. “The county, state or whatever should require family members, guardians, doctors to be aware of this activity and sign off before solicited votes are allowed.”
Wieser agrees, and that’s his advice during this election season to avoid a similar situation with your loved ones.
If your family member has similar memory problems or a mental disability, especially if they’re institutionalized, you should notify the facility administrator with your concerns. Or contact your county election board to give it a heads up about your loved one’s ability (or inability) to cast a ballot.
“We were appalled that this happened without any of our knowledge,” the nephew said.
This shady situation shouldn’t happen again to those of us who now know better, thanks to him.
But we should also offer our thanks to the old woman who inadvertently helped reveal this loophole in the voting process. After all those decades of voting, last year’s suspicious vote may make the most impact after all. Too bad she’ll never know it.
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