Election Officials Consider Reroute Of Senior Facility Voting

Many assisted living facilities are on lockdown from COVID-19, but just two weeks ago some were polling locations on Super Tuesday.

By Caroline CovingtonMarch 18, 2020 12:01 pm, ,

Seniors are often more vulnerable to diseases than other people. And that’s especially true when it comes to COVID-19. So when the Renaissance Retirement Center in Austin went into lockdown over the weekend, Maxine Barkan, who is 100 years old, thought it was a good idea.

“I think they’re doing an excellent job trying to keep us safe and trying to minimize the person-to-person contact,” she says.

Barkan says the operators of her senior community are doing the right thing under the circumstances. She lives in Renaissance’s assisted living wing. The facility banned visitors as of Sunday – two days after Gov. Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump declared state and national emergencies. That means not even Barkan’s daughter can come to see her.

But things were very different at Renaissance just a couple of weeks ago. On Super Tuesday, Renaissance was a polling location.

“Apparently it’s been here for a long time. In fact, it’s our precinct here – it’s not only a voting place, it’s our precinct,” Barkan says.

Renaissance, located in Northwest Austin, has been a polling location since at least 2012, and on March 3, 743 people voted there. Brookdale, an assisted living facility also in North Austin, was also a polling place on Super Tuesday. 889 people voted there.

Chris Davis is on the board of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, and he says no one really thought twice before about putting polling locations in residential senior centers.

“When we planned for them as sites, we really had no idea of, you know, any kind of potential for exposure at the time,” he says.

Davis is the election administrator for Williamson County where there were two polling places at residential senior facilities on Super Tuesday. He says locations are chosen for their convenience to voters. But now, that thinking might have to change – not just in Williamson County, but across the state.

“We seriously need to think about where we deploy polling places in those areas where there’s folks that may be more vulnerable to something like this. And it’s a valid concern that, quite frankly, I venture to say not a lot of my colleagues … have… considered,” Davis says.

There are at least seven polling places in senior residential facilities across Texas’ five largest counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. There’s several more polling places at senior community and activity centers.

And election officials don’t have a lot of time to fix this. There’s a statewide runoff in May for the U.S. Senate, plus various municipal elections. But Davis says he can be pretty nimble relocating polling away from senior homes, at least in Williamson County.

“We are already developing that list of Election Day polling places for that election . … It’s another angle that none of us considered before that we will have to consider going forward,” he says.

So far, no COVID-19 cases in Texas are linked with voting centers in senior homes. But those facilities are vulnerable: 29 people tied to a nursing facility in Washington State have died already.

And concerns about voting aren’t limited to Texas. Four states were supposed to have primary elections Tuesday. But Ohio ended up postponing theirs early Tuesday morning. Officials there had recently changed the location of 163 voting centers that were supposed to be in senior homes.

As election officials work in Texas to remap polling locations for the May runoff, and again for this fall, Maxine Barkan adjusts to the new normal – an ever smaller world. As of last weekend: no mail, no hanging out in the common areas, no housekeeping and definitely no visitors.

“Well what that looks like is four walls. And fortunately, I have some knitting and an interesting book, and some TV,” she says.

But Barkan’s  been through times of quarantine before – back when there were no vaccines for measles or whooping cough. And she says just like back then, we’ll get through COVID-19 … somehow.

 

Interactive map updated March 19, 2020.