Ballots in the Nursing Home
How did a dementia patient register to vote?
By Marisa Demarco and Simon McCormack
Kim Terrell returned from a trip overseas and went to St. Catherine's Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center to visit her mom. Elva Bacon, 88, has vascular dementia. "She basically lives in the past," Terrell says.
Terrell was surprised to find campaign literature for the 2008 election in her mother's room, addressed specifically to Bacon—not to "resident of St. Catherine's."
Someone had registered her mother to vote.
Through a public records request, the Alibi secured a copy of Bacon's voter registration form. Bacon was not listed with any party affiliation, and she's registered at St. Catherine's address.
Bacon came to Albuquerque from Connecticut in 2007, so Terrell was sure someone registered her mother in New Mexico after the move. Bacon's coped with dementia for years, and her mental clarity has deteriorated significantly in recent months. "The current world is not real available to her, though sometimes she's quite lucid," Terrell says. There was a time when Bacon was interested in politics and current affairs, but her daughter says she does not know who's running for office in 2008. "It breaks my heart," Terrell says. "That's not the person who's inhabiting her body right now. She's lost almost all of her mental ability."
“The question becomes: Who is really voting?”
Kim Terrell, daughter of Elva Bacon
Terrell has power of attorney for Bacon, and her mother's new voter registration left her with many practical questions. How would her mother vote? Would Terrell be allowed to talk with her mother about what she wants to do as she casts her ballot? "The question becomes: Who is really voting?"
She notes that many residents at St. Catherine's are there for rehabilitation purposes and are probably capable of voting. "But there's a large number that are there suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's."
According to the Bernalillo County Clerk's website, a person who is "legally mentally incapacitated" cannot register to vote. Though Bacon has dementia, she's never been declared legally mentally incapacitated. "There's nothing in the law that prevents her from being registered to vote," says County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver. "This particular situation—it's a tricky one."
"I Had No Way of Knowing"
The person who registered Bacon to vote wishes to remain anonymous. "I'm shocked," she says when she hears of her involvement in Bacon’s story. "I'm stunned." According to the Secretary of State's Office, the registrar is not a member of a political party or affiliated with a canvassing group. Rather, she showed up at St. Catherine's the first time at the request of a resident who wanted to register. St. Catherine's, she says, told her she could come back. When the registrar returned, staff members brought people to her who they thought might be interested in registering, she says.
"There's nothing in the law that prevents her from being registered to vote. This particular situation—it's a tricky one."
County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver
St. Catherine spokesperson Melody Chatelle says members of the nursing home staff asked their residents if they wanted to vote and, if they said yes, they were taken to meet with the registrar. Chatelle also says many residents saw the registrar at the table in a public area and decided to sign up to vote.
"I had no way of knowing whether the people had dementia," says the registrar. "I will tell you right up front that if they had dementia, I did not pick that up. I did see people who had strokes, who had difficulty communicating. That made it hard for me. They couldn't talk. A couple of times, I had to make sure that that was exactly what they wanted put down on the form."
St. Catherine’s Chatelle declined to comment on whether staff knew Terrell has Bacon’s power of attorney. As for whether they knew Bacon suffered from dementia, Chatelle says staff doesn't necessarily look at residents' medical charts before allowing them to register. "If a resident asks for something, we try to accommodate that resident regardless of what his or her diagnosis is," Chatelle says. "We honor the wishes of our residents."
“If a resident asks for something, we try to accommodate that resident regardless of what his or her diagnosis is.”
St. Catherine spokesperson Melody Chatelle
Chatelle says there are no specific plans to take people to the polls on Election Day unless residents request it. Most of the people living in the home who registered will fill out absentee ballots.
"Why Would They Not Be Allowed to Vote?"
County Clerk Oliver says there's no way for her office to inspect voter registration forms to find out if a person is mentally incapacitated. "If you consider the fact that we've gotten in about 80,000 this year, it would be kind of hard for us to try to contact every single person to check on something like that," she says. The responsibility is on the person being registered, the person doing the registering and the people caring for the registrant, she adds.
Because Terrell holds the power of attorney for Bacon, she can call the Bernalillo County Clerk's Office and have her mother removed from the rolls, Oliver says.
The situation also raises larger issues for Terrell. Are nursing home residents without the mental acuity to vote being registered across the country? Who helps them vote?
Though Oliver doesn't know whether third-party canvassing groups focused on nursing homes during this election cycle, she says it's something that happens. "I know anecdotally that certainly nursing homes have been traditional places where folks have tried to do not only voter registration, but education and outreach efforts," she says. The County Clerk's Office does outreach at nursing homes, she confirms.
Randy Swinson, manager at Paloma Landing Retirement Community, says anyone who wants to register can. "We helped our residents get registered, and then we're taking a big bus down to the polls on Election Day," Swinson says.
Sharon Bingham, executive director of the Woodmark at Uptown assisted living community, says there may be some instances when residents might not be allowed to vote if someone else has their power of attorney. But for the most part, there are no restrictions. "Why would they not be allowed to vote?" Bingham says. "If they're cognitive enough to make that decision, then that's their decision."
Michele Batchelor, the activities assistant at the Rehabilitation Center of Albuquerque, says everyone who wants to register must get permission from whomever has their power of attorney. "Everything they do, the power of attorney needs to know about it," Batchelor says. "We've had some residents not be allowed to register because their power of attorney doesn't feel they're capable of making the decision."
Terrell says she will call the County Clerk’s Office and have Bacon removed from the voter rolls. At this point in time, she says, her mom wouldn’t know who she was voting for or what the issues are. “Me helping her to vote is just as wrong as someone else helping her to vote.”
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver asks that any new voters who discover errors on their voter registration cards contact her office at 768-1290.
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