A voter drops a ballot in the box at the Julia De Burgos satellite election office in late October

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David isn’t sure he’ll be able to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to, or that he’s unsure about which candidate to pick. Unlike millions of Pennsylvania residents who choose not to vote each year, David wholeheartedly hopes to participate in the electoral process.

But he lives at the Philadelphia Nursing Home at 21st and Girard. Thanks to the coronavirus, he likely won’t be allowed to leave to visit a polling place on Nov. 3.

David, whose name we have changed because he fears retribution from his care facility, could theoretically fill out a mail ballot. But he’s blind — so he can’t do it without help. And since he can’t see the finished product to verify it, he’d rather have a trusted friend help him fill out his ballot than a staffer.

That would require a visitor, which he’s been told isn’t allowed.

Though not currently banned by the city, outside visits are still restricted at many long-term care facilities in Philly, according to Health Commissioner Tom Farley. David, who is in his late 30s, said he has friends who’ve cited similar problems, including one resident at Willow Terrace in Germantown who declined to speak on the record.

“It’s really dehumanizing,” David said. “It’s telling me as a voter, as a disabled voter, a blind voter, that I do not have access to my own consent. I don’t have my own access to my own vote. It’s all dependent on other people.”


For David and others like him, voting this year feels more like a maze than a civic duty.

Access for people living at care facilities used to be relatively easy — especially because nursing homes often served as polling places. Residents could just drop by the lobby, or head out to the polls, or designate anyone of their choosing to help fill out and deliver an absentee ballot.

This year, obviously, things are different. Care facilities must walk a fine line to ensure they don’t step on voting rights while protecting their residents from COVID, all as a fall outbreak threatens to surge.

It’s a delicate balance, and there’s no comprehensive plan. Health Commissioner Farley said the city had not issued specific guidelines for nursing homes regarding Nov. 3.

“We actually haven’t thought about that,” he said at a Tuesday press conference, recommending voting by mail as the safest option. “I definitely think the facilities should be careful about that. They want to enable voting but they need to enable it in a safe way.”

‘I would prefer to at least be able to drop off my ballot’

Advocates worry the labyrinth of new policies and procedures will disenfranchise many of Pennsylvania’s 125,000 nursing home residents.

“We are working to try to help as much as possible to enable people from these facilities to exercise their right to vote in this very important election,” said Kelly Dar, legal director of the group Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

A dozen advocacy organizations teamed up late last month to ring the alarm, sending a letter to Pennsylvania officials urging them to shore up Election Day plans.

They asked the Department of State for two specific things: To universally send mail ballots to all long-term care residents — regardless of whether they were requested — and to provide instructions to facilities on the best way to conduct the election.

“Inaction will bar as many as 125,000 Pennsylvanians from access to what may be the most important election in their lifetime,” the letter reads.

The Dept. of State did issue a note asking nursing home operators to comply with national guidance from the Department of Health & Human Services. The federal priorities say facilities must:

  • Help residents express their right to vote
  • Have a plan to help residents register and vote, whether in person or by maim
  • Offer an avenue to complain if something goes wrong

Legal director Dar isn’t sure the release of that guidance means facilities will comply.

For example, the federal Voting Rights Act allows people who are blind or have another disability to receive voting assistance from a person of their choice. Pennsylvania law has a similar provision — that voters with disabilities can designate an agent to return their ballot for them.

But if a nursing home is prohibiting visitors, then a resident can’t necessarily designate the person they want to pick up and deliver their ballot. Department of State spokesperson Ellen Lyon told Billy Penn she couldn’t say whether this would be a violation of state law.

At David’s long-term care facility in Francisville, executive director Sheri Gifford said she’s built voting into the day-to-day. Her staff is registering residents to vote on site, she said, and they dropped off a handful of completed ballots at City Hall earlier this week.

“We will manage this,” Gifford said in an interview. “We’re very committed to having everybody that wants to vote in this election vote.”

Gifford also claimed that as of late September, visitors have been allowed back into the Philadelphia Nursing Home.

David said he hadn’t heard that. Facility voicemail still says visitors aren’t allowed inside, and the website hasn’t been updated since May.

“I would prefer to at least be able to drop off my ballot at a location that would be safe, to take it to the post office myself,” he said. “But I have to hand my ballot to another stranger and trust them to send things off in the mail.”

To chat with a live person about any question you have regarding voting, text EQUALINFO to 73224.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...