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Robert Gehrke: In this pivotal election, these Utahns are overcoming obstacles to vote

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Update: Since this column ran the University of Utah hospital has developed protocols that allow COVID patients to fill out their ballot, seal it in a bag for three days and then have a family member return it to be counted. Also, Mary Hausen was released from the hospital.

Mary Hausen was intent on voting for Joe Biden and the 89-year-old Holladay resident wasn’t going to let anything stop her — until COVID-19 nearly did.

Last week, Hausen was at University Hospital, fighting a virus that is particularly hard on people her age, killing one in every six people over age 85 who contract it.

When her granddaughter, Laura Thomas, contacted me last week, she said her grandmother was desperate to cast her ballot, not knowing if she would make it to Election Day, but the hospital had told her she couldn’t — they couldn’t risk spreading the virus on an infected ballot.

They suggested Thomas fill it out for her grandmother, an act that — even if she was able to somehow match her grandmother’s signature — would have been against the law.

“My grandmother is 89 and knows how important her vote is,” said Thomas, who also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Disability Law Center, trying to get help. Wheels were put in motion to explore whether her ballot could be sealed in a bag and quarantined until the virus died off.

Now it may not come to that, as it looks like Hausen will be out of the hospital before Election Day (although surely other patients will want to vote).

Statewide, nearly 523,000 ballots have been submitted and processed, according to Tuesday’s update from the state elections office. That’s already nearly half the total number of ballots counted in 2016 and elections officials are anticipating record-breaking turnout.

Clearly, there is enthusiasm across the board. Some of it, to be sure, is driven by hatred and rage for the opposing candidate or party. It is a powerful motivator.

But even in that group we’re seeing a remarkable level of engagement. People feel like maybe their vote matters or, at the very least, they want their voice heard. They’re unwilling to be nonchalant about this important civic responsibility.

Christie Worthington is one of those who didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Her daughter, Kylie, is attending school in San Diego and had requested an absentee ballot to vote in her first general election ever, but Worthington was worried it wouldn’t arrive in time to get it returned and counted.

So Worthington, who is a flight attendant, took the ballot that had been sent to the family’s home, got on a flight to California (she flies free, remember) and had lunch with her daughter, waited for her to fill out the ballot, then flew back to Utah that same day and dropped it in the ballot box.

“It’s just so important,” Worthington said. “I didn’t want her to miss out on the opportunity and she was just as eager to do it, so it was important to me and to her.”

Then there’s Ardis Parshall, who lives in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood. Because of her age and severe diabetes, she has basically been hunkered down in her home since March — leaving just one time when she had to have her cat put to sleep.

But Parshall and her neighbors noticed not long ago that none of them had received their ballots. They hadn’t received any mail, in fact.

So Parshall called the Post Office and was told the carrier wouldn’t deliver to the neighborhood because there was a dog at one home that made it unsafe. Parshall said she was told she would need to come to the Post Office with identification to retrieve her mail.

“It makes it a little hard for someone like me who can’t get out of the house and has no private transportation,” she told me Tuesday.

Parshall kept calling and kept being told the same thing, so finally she was about to give up. She was resigned to taking the risk — a substantial risk, when you think about it — and had arranged for a friend to give her a ride to the early voting location.

“I was determined to vote, one way or another, even if it meant I had to stand next to a bunch of people who weren’t wearing masks,” Parshall said. “If the choice was between that and not voting, I was going to vote.”

But a few minutes before she was supposed to leave, a neighbor delivered a stack of three weeks of Parshall’s mail that the Post Office had accidentally given to the neighbor (which they’re really not supposed to do). Now her ballot is filled out on her counter, waiting to be dropped off.

A few months ago I wrote about the unique challenges that vision impaired voters face — either having to get someone to read them the ballot and fill it out, or needing special accommodations at in-person locations in order to vote.

Sheri Newton, a voting advocate with the Disability Law Center, said she’s hearing from voters who are having problems getting access to that assistance, with some county clerks saying it’s just not available.

Newton is usually able to work through the impediments, but only if the voter calls and reports them before Election Day.

“We’re really concerned that folks in hospitals or care facilities are getting access to what they need to vote,” Newton said.

Most of us are fortunate. We aren’t hospitalized with COVID, we aren’t blind, we don’t have health conditions that make leaving our homes a risk or angry dogs disrupting our mail delivery, and chances are by now we have our ballot — we don’t need it personally delivered.

But what we do share with these folks is that our vote matters, just as much as theirs, and we should be just as committed to doing what needs to be done to make sure — no matter who you’re voting for — that each of our ballots is cast and counted this year.

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