By Varshini Chellapilla
If a person living with cognitive difficulties expresses a desire to vote, he or she ought to be assisted as needed to legally and effectively cast that vote.
This was a key message Thursday as the Penn Memory Center and Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church discussed the 2020 election.
“Truly when we vote, we lift up our voices in one great chorus,” said Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center. “One vote at a time, we all become many. For most of us, this is a very private and personal act that we do. But some of us need help to vote. Some of us need someone else to help make our voice heard.”
The event, with featured guest Ashley Session from the Committee of Seventy, addressed proper procedures and technical issues during the voting process.
“Some people need someone else to help them exercise that capacity to vote,” Dr. Karlawish said. “And I’d like to think of those kinds of individuals as the eyes and hands of the [patients], helping them to either perceive the ballot and/or mark the ballot.”
The first and arguably most important step would be to ask the person if they would like to vote. If they answer affirmatively, then they should be allowed to vote. Dr. Karlawish iterated that other questions, like those about the date of the election or running candidates, should not be asked.
During the voting process, there will be two main types of assistance — reading the ballot and marking it. For both, it is vital that the caregiver or helper read the ballot as is to the individual. No additional inputs about the candidates or the issues should be talked about. The individual can select which candidate they wish to vote for or nominate a write-in candidate. It is also important to remember that the individual can choose not to vote in certain races.
Questions about who is running in the races, what the main issues are, and the stances of each candidate are important and should be addressed. However, it should be done before the ballot is in front of the individual.
Dr. Karlawish also walked through different scenarios that could arise when helping an individual with cognitive impairments vote. He also mentioned that guardianship and the power of attorney do not give a caregiver or helper the ability to vote for another person.
Session, director of civic engagements and partnerships at the Committee of Seventy, was present at the event to answer any questions about the legal and technical issues of voting in the 2020 general elections. She addressed the four main ways a person can vote in the upcoming elections: in-person, at a satellite election office, mail-in ballots, or absentee ballots. She also went through the various forms that will be necessary to assist in the voting process.
“When we’re talking about accessibility and we’re talking about voting, understand that everybody has a voice,” Session said. “Everybody is capable and able to vote and exercise their right to vote.”
The general election is on Nov. 3. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 19. Session warned against assuming a person is already registered. She recommended rechecking registration information online at votespa.com.
Session said that absentee ballots were apt for people with cognitive impairments as they authorize caregivers to help individuals vote. Absentee ballots are used if a person plans to be out of the municipality on election day or if they have a disability or illness. It is required to request an absentee ballot and to list a valid reason for the absence.
The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot is Oct. 27. Mail-in ballots must be mailed to your county’s election office by 8 p.m. EST on Nov. 3 or postmarked by election day and received on Nov. 6. In the City of Philadelphia, ballots can be dropped off at any satellite election office or drop box.
Additional information on voting assistance can be found in the guide prepared by the Penn Memory Center and the American Bar Association here.