Officials: Keep vote helpers out of Wisconsin nursing homes
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission shouldn’t allow special voting deputies to enter nursing homes to help residents cast absentee ballots in November because the risk they could spread COVID-19 through the facilities is still too great, the commission’s top administrator warned Thursday.
State law allows local clerks to appoint deputies to enter nursing homes and help residents fill out absentee ballots. But the elderly appear to be the most susceptible severe illness from COVID-19. The elections commission in March banned deputies from entering facilities for the state’s April presidential primary, following state and federal guidance that only essential workers be allowed to enter such facilities.
The commission reaffirmed in June that no deputies should enter nursing homes ahead of the state’s Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general election. Republican Commissioner Robert Spindell, however, asked staff during a Sept. 1 meeting to reconsider that stance.
The commission was set to discuss the prospect Thursday afternoon. But the meeting was postponed after the state Supreme Court ordered the commission to turn over the names and addresses of everyone who has requested an absentee ballot so far as it considers whether to place Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins on the ballot. The commission did not say when the meeting would be made up.
Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe wrote a memo to the commission ahead of the meeting warning against allowing deputies back in. She said commission staff consulted with state health officials and state nursing home regulators, who ticked a host of concerns.
COVID-19 infection rates are higher across the state than they were in April by hundreds of cases per day, outside visitors still aren’t allowed at nursing homes, voting deputies likely wouldn’t be allowed room visits and deputies that visit multiple facilities.
What’s more, she wrote, advocates for the elderly and disabled don’t want deputies in the facility. She pointed to comments that the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition and the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources submitted warning that nursing home residents are perhaps the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and should be kept safe.
Clerks have been proceeding under the assumption that deputies won’t be allowed in nursing homes, Wolfe added. If the commission gives deputies the green light to reenter facilities, clerks will have to scramble to schedule their visits with each facility in their jurisdiction, she said. And many clerks have said they’re worried about finding anyone willing to do the job, she said.
“Each of these issues is a significant individual barrier and when combined would make it even more difficult to send (deputies) into care facilities and nursing homes to conduct voting,” Wolfe said. “Throughout the pandemic, we have asked for guidance from public health officials on how to conduct voting safely in Wisconsin and those officials all expressed significant concerns over the reinstatement of the program.”
Commission staff have worked to bolster training for nursing home workers so they can help residents fill out their ballots, Wolfe wrote.
Staff has created a letter outlining voter registration and absentee ballot requests that clerks can send to facility managers. Staff also has emailed an information packet managers can share with residents that lays out how to vote absentee, witness requirements and other details in the process to about 15,000 nursing home and assisted living providers, she wrote.