Despite a global pandemic, the 2020 General Election shattered voting turnout records with over 155 million Americans casting their ballots. In Multnomah County alone, voter turnout increased by more than 63,000 voters compared to the 2016 General Election; a record-breaking number that includes turnout among older voters and those with disabilities.
“For our elders, voting was a way for them to be a part of the larger world and to feel like they did matter and they did count,” said Carisa Bohus, Multnomah County Elections Voter Assistance Team (VAT) coordinator.
“They are already isolated and now we have this pandemic where they’re being isolated further. Getting involved in democracy connected them.”
Ahead of every election, VAT members work tirelessly to expand access and resources for as many Multnomah County voters as possible. The team responds to requests for help that come into the Elections Office. They help community members and residents currently living overseas register, understand election rules, and mark and read ballots.
But this year was marked by distinct challenges, Bohus shared. Whenever VAT members went out into the community to provide help, they followed safety recommendations provided by the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) due to COVID-19.
They wore face coverings while working through screen doors, sliding glass doors and open windows to help voters who needed help but did not have the mobility to come outside.
During the election, Bohus and her VAT teams held three outdoor, voter registration drives at over-55 communities, and worked with countless other elderly voters over the phone to answer questions and help them register.
She says that at least six of the voters who VAT worked with were near the end of life and “wanted to vote before their major transition.”
“We had to be imaginative as we worked through the challenges of COVID-19,” said Bohus, “but I think it not only preserved their right to vote, it also honored the wishes of these voters and made them feel connected.”
Due to COVID restrictions, VAT members trained activity directors at assisted living facilities to help residents cast their ballot.
“They now know the ins and outs of the registration form, how to look things up via MyVote, (a statewide voter services system), email forms, options for their residents, and how to make voting a fun community builder,” Bohus says.
VAT workers also wore orange “Election Official” vests this year to be easily identifiable to community members. Bohus says that this added tremendous visibility and increased the number of people her team was able to reach.
“Because we were outside helping people outside, other people would notice. There were a couple of different places where friends and neighbors would deliver ballots and ask questions,” Bohus says. “Sometimes we would even set up a canopy.”
On Election Day, Bohus recalled one voter who was staying at a local hotel for vulnerable, unhoused people.
She had just taken a test for COVID-19 but did not know her status yet, said Bohus. She was self-quarantining in her hotel room, but still wanted to vote. So we read and marked the ballot over the phone for her,” said Bohus.
“Then hotel staff who served as interior couriers, placed the ballot envelope at her door. Our VAT team then stood back so she could open the door, sign the envelope and place it back on the mat for them to drop off at the Elections Division.”
“The VAT is all about equity,” said Bohus.
“For efficiency, we make sure we use all of our election systems in place. And if there are any gaps — that’s where the VAT comes in. It’s the people around the fringe that we try to make sure we reach, help vote and ensure an election of integrity.”