Seniors Are Historically The Country's Biggest Voting Bloc, Then Came Coronavirus
Casting a ballot during a pandemic presents a dilemma for many Americans who worry about the health risks of voting in person, or whether the post office will deliver mail-in ballots on time. Those concerns are even greater for older voters.
Retirees have long flocked to Florida’s warm climate and older voters have long been the country’s most reliable voting bloc. In the 2016 general election, 71% of Americans aged 65 and older turned out to vote. Tom Tengen of Lakewood Ranch is one of them. The Ohio native moved here four years ago and says he's voted in every election for the past 60 years.
"The first time I voted was for Eisenhower and I was probably 21 or there about in that time frame,” he said.
But this year, Tengen says he doesn't feel safe voting in person because of the coronavirus.
"The reality is anytime you're around a group of people, you're going to dramatically increase your opportunity to acquire this disease,” he said. “So I think that absolutely one should be concerned about voting within this pandemic."
So this year, Tengen says he will most likely vote by mail.
Jeff Johnson, the state director for AARP Florida, says a recent survey of its members shows that many plan to do the same.
“What we've said to our members and to others is to think of this as Floridians, the way we think of hurricane season, you don't wait until the storm is upon us to do your preparations,” he said.
The AARP survey also reveals that about one in four Florida seniors know someone who has died from coronavirus.
"And at the same time, every public health message has specifically said people 65 and over should pay extra attention to this virus because of its potential to do more harm for older Floridians,” he said.
And the thousands of seniors living in Florida's long term care facilities face additional challenges. Although Gov. Ron DeSantis has lifted some restrictions on nursing homes and assisted living facilities, many residents have physical impairments and need help with voting.
Some may not be able to walk, others with diseases like Parkinson's may not to be able to hold a pen but are otherwise mentally cognizant.
And Patricia Brigham, President for the League of Women Voters Florida, says she also worries about the impact long term isolation has had on this group of voters.
"There are studies interestingly enough on how health influences or affects a person's desire to vote. And not surprisingly, if one is in ill health, or if one is depressed, the desire to vote decreases,” she said. “We want to make sure that to the best of our ability that social workers and employees at these facilities are providing seniors with a sense of community.”
That's why the bipartisan group is urging Florida's elections supervisors to work with the state’s long term care facilities and retirement communities to help secure the state's senior vote.
Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner says his office will do just that.
"Obviously this year with Covid it's a little more difficult because those facilities have had limited access,” he said. “But right now we're scheduled to go to 14 facilities in Sarasota County with our team of staff to assist individual voters there with casting their ballots. We're social distancing, we're wearing face coverings and sanitizing. Certainly we're working with the facilities to try to make any accommodations along those lines to help reduce any type of fears and to help increase any safety protocols that we can.”
In Manatee County, voting for residents of Freedom Village in Bradenton used to be just an elevator ride away. For years, the senior living center was an official voting precinct.
But coronavirus has changed that.
“This year Freedom Village contacted us and said, look, we really don't want to use this as a polling place. We don't want people coming in. We don't want people leaving and coming back,” said Mike Bennett, Supervisor of Elections for Manatee County.
So this year, the retirement community will not serve as a polling place. Instead, Bennett’s office will assist residents where they live.
"We instituted what's called supervised voting out there,” he said. “Those people will vote their ballot, put it in a vote by mail return envelope, give it to my staff and the staff will bring it back and we will process it."
Both county elections supervisors and Brigham at the League of Women Voters stressed their confidence in the integrity of voting by mail and each reminded voters to send back ballots early.
“Seniors want to vote and we want them to know they certainly have time to vote by mail,” said Brigham. “But if they don’t want to rely on anyone to take their ballots to a drop box, or supervisor’s office we urge them to mail their ballot no later than two weeks ahead of Election Day.”
With less than a month to go before the election, polls show a tight race to win Florida's crucial 29 Electoral College votes and many experts say the results may not be fully known on election night.
That's why senior Tom Tengen in Lakewood Ranch says this year he feels more urgency than ever to cast his ballot.
"It's imperative that we vote this year, regardless of your party affiliation” he said. “I think a big turnout is very critical in this election because it'll be more representative of how the voting public feels and not be the opinion of a judge or some potentially biased group of individuals."
Instead, he hopes the 20% percent of Floridians aged 65 and over will safely have their say, and contribute to deciding the country's clear winners and losers.