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With absentee ballots and special volunteers, helping the infirm vote

on November 6, 2012

For Oakland’s sick and elderly population, voting today presented a litany of obstacles, from immobility to sickness to mental illnesses. But the Registrar of Voters is tackling what seems to be the biggest hurdle: patients who physically cannot walk to a polling station.

“Most people here are in wheelchairs,” said Stephen Kutchko, the director of social services at Kindred Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, on 29th Street near the hospital center in North Oakland. “Most people can’t walk or get out independently, so they need some sort of assistance.”

Seeing this problem, elderly home directors and hospital spokespeople said Tuesday that they have systems set up to handle elections—the majority of immobile patients and nursing home residents voted via absentee or provisional ballots. And if there is still a voter at a hospital, for example, who wants to vote Tuesday, Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald said his office will quickly deploy someone to make sure that ballot is cast.

“If we get a call from a voter who may be in the hospital and wishes to vote, we’ll send someone out,” Macdonald said.

At the Kindred home, one of the patients is a 74-year-old woman, a registered Republican and a stroke victim who is partially paralyzed on the left side of her body. This makes it impossible for her to walk. She could get to the polls with an assistant and a wheelchair. But this election, she put in an absentee ballot, one that she filled out herself, which is not typical for residents there.

Ninety nine percent of the residents at the center voted via absentee ballots with help from the staff, Kutchko said. Because of short-term memory loss and cognitive impairment, most of the residents at Kindred did not complete their ballots themselves.

“Most of them can read the forms–they can read what’s on the ballot,” Kutchko said.

Despite these voting obstacles, this year the nursing and rehabilitation home saw a much higher voter turnout: 25 percent of the residents voted, up from the usual 5 to 10 percent of elderly residents who vote.

“I’ve never seen a stack of absentee ballots going out like that before,” Kutchko said. “It was wonderful.”

Absentee ballots appear to be the answer to making sure the city’s sick patients also get their votes in.

At the Alameda County Medical Center, which includes Highland Hospital in Oakland and Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, officials said that last week, hospital officials asked patients if they wanted to vote.

“Those who did, received provisional ballots,” said Jerri Randup, a hospital spokesperson. 27 patients were able to fill these ballots in, Randup said. “Those were then sent in to the Registrar of Voters,” she said.

Kutcho added that watching his facility’s efforts to register at least some of the patients’ votes had given him one idea for a temporary solution: portable polling places in nursing homes. “I’m guessing there would be a 70 percent turnout,” he said. “There would be more participation if some people had booths they could wheel into.”


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