They are not convicted felons, although we appear to be treating them that way:
This year, what stumped Hutchins, despite all his resourcefulness, was how he was going to exercise his basic constitutional right to vote during a pandemic. The Davis Community nursing home in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Hutchins has lived for two years, has barred visitors since March. Margaret, still in the retirement community nearby, can’t help him, nor can their four kids and eight grandchildren.
Neither can the nursing home staff. A 2013 state law prohibits staff at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and rest homes from helping residents with their ballots.
In truth, I hesitated writing this because I didn't want to add to the ReopenNC nonsense that still persists, even though NC seems to be faring better than other states during this pandemic. But this situation has deep, Constitutional implications, that simply must be addressed, and soon. Before proceeding, I need to bore you with another personal anecdote:
For the last 8 years or so of my mother's life, I assisted her in her efforts to vote. Initially, it was driving her to the precinct while I waited outside. Then I had to go with her, to help her navigate the voting machine steps. Then I helped her vote absentee-by-mail, which involved me explaining the ballot, serving as a witness, and getting her next-door neighbor to stand as witness #2. But when she moved into a nursing home, I failed her. I forgot to get her voter registration and driver's license updated, and she was no longer physically able to go and take care of those things before voting. And neither of us were comfortable using her old address, for fear some over-zealous "voter integrity" jerk would challenge it.
Some of those issues no longer exist, but I wanted to get across the message that nursing home voting was already challenging before the pandemic. And Republicans have actively opposed helping these people:
This spring, a friend of Margaret Hutchins at the local League of Women Voters chapter asked her if Walter would be interested in joining a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s vote by mail restrictions and ballot accessibility laws. “I thought that he’d be willing, and that I better call him and ask him,” Margaret said.
Hutchins agreed. He signed up as a plaintiff, along with the league; Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan nonprofit; and several voters who were either elderly, disabled or at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Hutchins was the only plaintiff confined to a nursing home.
In the suit, Hutchins’ lawyers argued that the state was violating his rights by barring staff from helping him with his ballot. The case also sought broader changes to make voting easier in North Carolina.
Conservative legal groups intervened to oppose the lawsuit. Committees for the Republican Senatorial and Congressional campaigns filed motions in the case, arguing that election rules, including the staff prohibition, should not be changed. The Public Interest Legal Foundation, a right-wing think tank that has long pushed exaggerated claims of voter fraud, filed an amicus brief for the defense, asking the court to consider its research on inaccuracies in the state’s voter rolls.
The state and county boards contended that Hutchins had not yet been deprived of the right to vote. His facility, for example, might not be locked down by the election. They also argued that MATs could help Hutchins with his ballot, though the state had not yet released its guidance.
Bolding mine, because kicking the can down the road in this fashion very likely caused the judge to limit his decision to this one voter. Absentee ballots are going out in just a few weeks, and no solution has been found (or even attempted) by election officials or the Legislature to ameliorate this problem. This effort is pretty much a non-starter:
In North Carolina, individual counties decide whether to send what are known as multipartisan assistance teams (MATs). They have traditionally been funded by county resources and depend on volunteers. On Aug. 1, the state Department of Health and Human Services released guidance that “strongly encouraged” that those teams visit residents outdoors, no more than two residents at a time, and maintain 6 feet of social distance.
Emails submitted as evidence in the case, though, showed that Hutchins and other nursing home residents might not be able to rely on MAT, and that at least two counties did not have teams. “It may be difficult to find a team of bipartisan volunteers to serve, and the MAT program has no funding allocated to it by the legislature,” Katelyn Love, the North Carolina Board of Elections’ general counsel, had written to a disability rights group. “If a MAT team is unavailable, another person may assist a voter in a nursing home or other facility provided that the person is not disqualified. Nursing home owners, managers, and employees, may not assist.”
Hilary Harris Klein, a lawyer for Hutchins at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told ProPublica that the law prohibiting employee assistance trampled Hutchins’ rights. “He trusts these people and wants them to help,” she said. “The government is denying his choice by enforcing this ban on staff assistance.”
The possible existence of volunteers, with zero funding from the state level, is not a solution, it's a unicorn. Something needs to change. Either we allow family members to help nursing home residents to vote, or we allow staff to help them. Take your pick, but do it quick.