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Election Protection is WKSU’s community information initiative focused on access, policy and community resources around voting this November.

Changes to Voting Locations Force Some Senior Citizens to Consider Alternate Voting Options

The Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority moved six polling locations outside of residential buildings, including Saferstein Towers shown here, to protect vulnerable populations from potential spread of the coronavirus.
Keith Freund
The Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority moved six polling locations outside of residential buildings, including Saferstein Towers shown here, to protect vulnerable populations from potential spread of the coronavirus.

Changes in polling locations coupled with concerns over the coronavirus are affecting some of the most steadfast voters in the country.

In Portage and Summit County more than 500 seniors living in public and assisted housing will not be able to vote the way they have for decades, in the public spaces of their complexes. Because of the fear of coronavirus transmission, those polling precincts have been moved to neighboring churches and community centers.

Among these voters is Jacqueline Fowler, a Saferstein Towers resident of 16 years. 2020 would have marked her 37th year of being a poll worker. She says she’s worried about those like her who use a wheelchair or have other mobility issues and their ability to vote. When she worked the polls, Fowler was the person who helped differently abled voters cast their ballot.

"I was kind of disappointed because a lot of the people that live in these high rises, they don't really drive," Fowler said. "So it's hard for them to get out and where I live in my building I would explain to them that you can vote absentee ballot, but a lot of them were kind of apprehensive about that too."

Saferstein Towers is run by the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. Its director, Brian Gage, says six polling locations were relocated out of public housing and into neighboring communities this year in an effort to protect vulnerable populations. So, his office is working to ensure residents have access to absentee ballots, assistance with the ballot application process, and rides to the polls.

"I think the seniors understand this is a different time, and they're concerned about their health, too," Gage said. "And they also want to make sure that their place, that they live is safe. And a mass number of people coming in, to vote on Election Day would likely threaten their well-being and health."

Rides to the polls

That’s why Kentway Apartments in Kent is offering similar services for its residents. Kentway is operated by Family and Community Services, the largest social service organization in Portage County. Sandy Halem, the organization's enrichment coordinator, says in conjunction with helping residents with absentee ballots, the staff is working to get voters rides to the polls.

"Because we are a social service agency, we have made it very clear to [our residents]. If they need a ride, we will make sure we get them to the alternative polling place," she said.

It’s not just a matter of voting, but a matter of mental health, Halem said.

"We will make sure that they have a way to get there because we know how important it is. I mean, they would be quite frankly depressed if they couldn't vote," she said

Missing the convenience and more

Norma J. Flemming has lived in Kentway Apartments for 20 years. She says voting so close to home was not only convenient but enjoyable.

"When I first came here, I was excited about it because I live on the seventh floor, which is the last floor," she said. "And all I had to do here in the tower is just get on the elevator and go downstairs and walk in the common room. That's where the voting was being held."

M.L. Schultze
From transportation to anticipated crowds at polling locations to concerns with the absentee voting process, seniors face a range of challenges in casting their ballots this year.

Now though, she and many others have a tough decision to make. Go through the process of requesting a mail-in ballot, travel to the Portage County Board of Elections to vote early, or brave the crowds and vote on Election Day.

"I mean, it brought many things to bear that you wouldn't have to have to deal with had they had it still here in the building period," Flemming said.

Ultimately, she decided to drop her mail-in ballot off at the board of elections building to avoid coronavirus and issues at the post office. Her decision is not an uncommon one, and it’s one many people hope will help keep Election Day crowds small and voters safe.

Election Day

But for some seniors, Election Day is part of their voting DNA.

Elizabeth Byers and four of her close friends will get in a car Nov. 3, leave Kentway Apartments, and make their way to the new alternate polling location.

Byers says she takes the pandemic very seriously and that she plans to take all the precautions she can. But she needs to make sure her vote is counted.

"It's my obligation to vote. So I'll have to find a way there," she said. "But it's just that like my four friends, we decided to go ahead and do it on our own. I can't drive. So I have to find another way there. So I just do it. That's the way life is though. You gotta get 'er done."

And Ohio’s seniors, like the rest of its 8 million registered voters, are trying to figure out the best way to get 'er done.

Carter is an award winning multimedia journalist specializing in audio reporting and photojournalism. His work has appeared in NPR, The Washington Post and The Portager, where he works as a photo editor and reporter. His reporting centers around working class issues and the LGBTQIA+ community with a focus on voter disenfranchisement.