by Chris Potter
One of the emerging stories this election, at least in Pittsburgh, is the last-minute arrival of 300 applications for emergency absentee ballots, all sought by patients in local hospitals. As we reported earlier today, lawyers have already been squabbling over the applications. While the ballots will be collected, that may only be to provide fodder for a formal court challenge from Republicans. The votes may also prove a GOP talking point in the days ahead — especially if the election is tight. In fact, for a party led by the likes of Jim Roddey, the temptation of mocking ballots cast from Western Psych may be too much to resist.
So where did this influx of patient applications come from? It's a story that is years in the making.
"This really began back in 2004," says Paul O'Hanlon, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network, and an advocate for the chair's Disability Voting Coalition. "I was working on the Election Protection hotline, and we got calls from hospital patients who wanted to vote. Until then, it hadn't really dawned on me that the hospitals were full of people on Election Day, and most of them hadn't planned to be there."
At the time, there wasn't much O'Hanlon could do about it: State law required applications for absentee ballots to be filed well in advance of the election. But in 2006, the state passed Act 137, which allowed voters to make an emergency application for an absentee ballot — right up to election day itself.
With that law in hand, O'Hanlon began finding volunteers to reach out to hospital patients, starting in 2008. At first, he recalls, "We really just floundered around, and weren't very effective. It was almost kind of funny. Magee-Women's Hospital turned out to be the most contentious: One volunteer went in and saw was a patient who'd been a former client. Word got around, until security escorted her off the premises. We called UPMC's general counsel, who let us back in, but then security came back and said someone else at UPMC said we had to leave." While a handful of women at Magee did eventually secure ballots, their votes didn't reach the elections office in time to count.
To prevent a repeat of that fiasco, O'Hanlon began building up a relationship with UPMC. This year, he says, he was able to reach out to 10 UPMC hospitals in Allegheny County. And although he'd previously used his own volunteers to reach out to patients, "This year, the hospitals said, 'Our volunteers would like to do this too, and they know the hospital.'"
So as long as they live in Allegheny County, UPMC patients can choose to vote at the same time they pick a flavor of Jell-O. "Either at lunch yesterday or their meal last night," O'Hanlon says, "a patient would get a note saying that volunteers would be available today to help you apply for a ballot, and call this number if you're interested. Each hospital has a designated agent, so that all the applications have one person who is doing the transaction with the clerk's office."
In court today, Republicans raised concerns that many of the applications were handled by the same person. O'Hanlon says that's more efficient than having every patient choose their own representative. But while a 1995 Commonwealth Court decision, Dipietrae v. City of Philadelphia, allowed disabled voters to designate someone to deliver their ballot — the court drew the line at having the same person represent multiple voters in different households. The court ruled elections officials must "balanc[e] the rights of a disabled person ... with the public need to insure a fair election" — and having someone trolling whole neighborhoods for voters seemed to jeopardize the latter.
But O'Hanlon says the context of that case was different: The people canvassing the disabled vote were partisans working for a campaign. And that, he says, is different from his own group's non-partisan efforts to help anyone in a hospital (voters who are, after all, under one roof). The law, he says, gives local officials wide jurisdiction over cases involving patients in nursing homes and other facilities.
Republicans may also lodge a separate challenge for the ballots that came from Western Psych. While Pennsylvania is one of the very few states that don't restrict voting based on mental capacity, an old provision of the voting code bars residents of state mental institutions from voting by absentee ballot. But O'Hanlon says Western Psych is "a psychiatric hospital, not a state mental institution." And while state mental hospitals have voting machines on site, Western Psych does not. Taking absentee ballots away from patients there, he says, would effectively disenfranchise them completely.
In the end, O'Hanlon predicts, what Republicans do will depend on how the vote shapes up outside the hospital grounds. "I think they're just setting it up so that if, at the end of the night, the race is close enough, they’ll have enough issues to litigate in hopes of changing the result."