Proposed election law change follows Swain nursing home irregularities

The General Assembly is considering a bill that could solve a Catch 22 in election law: how to legitimately help nursing home patients vote without creating a climate ripe for abuse.

Currently, it is illegal for anyone other than a near relative to help a nursing home patient apply for a mail-in ballot or mark that ballot. The law was intended to prevent manipulation of nursing home patients who lack all their faculties.

The problem, however, is that someone without a near relative to help them who wants to vote could be prevented from doing so.

To solve the issue, the N.C. Board of Elections has asked the General Assembly to amend state election law. The law change would allow formal, multi-party teams to enter nursing homes and help patients vote. The teams, most likely volunteers from each party, would have to be trained and authorized by the county board of elections. The state board of elections would establish protocols for the teams to follow.

The proposed law change comes on the heels of alleged voting violations involving nursing home patients in Swain County during last fall’s election.

Patients in two nursing homes were targeted as part of a voting drive spearheaded by two prominent Democrats — Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones and Willard Smith, a long-time leader in the local Democratic Party. Smith, accompanied by Jones, helped at least five nursing home patients request mail-in ballots and then fill them out, according to interviews with the patients themselves and a review of the ballot requests and ballot envelopes.

An “X” appeared in lieu of a signature for three of the nursing home voters on their ballot requests and ballots. Smith had filled out both the ballot requests and the ballots for the three patients, marked an “X” in lieu of their signatures, and signed his own name as a witness on the ballot envelope — all seemingly in violation of state law since he wasn’t a near relative. A fourth voter, although he had signed his own name on his ballot, could not remember voting when asked about it three months later. Smith had witnessed that voter’s ballot as well. A fifth nursing home voter remembered voting, but said Smith had filled out his ballot for him and all he had to do was sign his name.

Don Wright, legal counsel for the N.C. Board of Elections, could not comment on the specific incident in Swain County since it is under investigation. But Wright could say that in general only a near relative is supposed to help a patient in nursing home with their ballot. Wright said the law is a direct result of a voting abuse involving nursing home patients.

If they don’t have a near relative, they should contact the county election board for help getting a ballot and filling it out, Wright said. Wright said if they aren’t capable of calling the county election board, then perhaps they aren’t in a position to be voting anyway.

However, others in the state election office are leaning toward a looser interpretation.

“There is some disagreement in this office as to that situation,” said Marshall Tutor, the state election investigator assigned to the Swain County case. “That is a very, very gray area.”

The proposed law change could solve the problem in the future. Rep. Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville, introduced the bill at the request of the state board of elections.

“We had all sworn a truce on nursing homes. You didn’t want to invade a nursing home and have people voting who didn’t know what they were doing,” Nesbitt said. “I think the board of elections felt like this was a workable solution. It’s not a nursing home employee or one party or another. It is just a bipartisan team. It makes sense to me.”

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