Old and ailing, they see exercising their fundamental right to vote as a way to have a say in a future they will probably never see.
Annamarie Eggert has voted in every presidential election since 1948, when she cast her ballot for Harry S. Truman. Now she is 94 and ailing, but she is determined to vote in this one, too.
Mrs. Eggert, a Biden supporter in York, Maine, has expressive aphasia, a condition that has made it difficult for her to talk, although her mind remains fully intact. “We— need— to— get— Trump— out— of— there,” she said, each word painstakingly coaxed from her lips. “Come— hell— or— high— wa—ter, I— will— vote.”
In this most contentious of elections, in which the very act of voting has come under fierce national debate, the determination of many very old, ill and infirm Americans to cast what could be their last vote is profound.
Though aware that they might not live long enough to be affected by the results, they say they are voting for children, grandchildren and their future — a final heartfelt, empowering act as American citizens.
“Most of my life at this point really is vicarious,” said Jill Haak Adels, 82, who has an aggressive form of cancer and a progressive lung condition that makes her increasingly short of breath. Yet she is making sure she will be able to vote, and intends to cast a straight Republican ballot.
“The president we have now is just fine,” she said. “He’s done a lot of things that have been overdue for a long time.”
She does not have a car to get to her polling place in Beverly, Mass., near the assisted living facility where she lives. So she has placed several calls to the town hall to remind the clerk to send her a mail-in ballot.
“I’m getting a little bit nervous,” she said recently, when the ballot still hadn’t arrived. “I’m going to call right now and harass them.”
Mrs. Eggert in Maine has been so determined to vote she laid out a plan, complete with contingencies. If her mail-in ballot failed to arrive, she would have her caregiver drive her to the polling place on Election Day.
Her ballot did arrive, on Tuesday. She filled it out — casting her vote not only for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, but for Sara Gideon, the Democratic challenger to Republican Senator Susan Collins — and a friend drove her the two miles to the York town hall to drop it off.
There are several reasons the very old can be determined to vote, said Dr. Barry K. Baines, a palliative care physician in Minneapolis who is an authority on ethical wills, the documenting of one’s values and life lessons for those left behind.
People in their late 80s and 90s today, Dr. Baines said, belong to the Greatest Generation, who grew up during World War II. “At its core, this was the most civic-minded generation,” he said. “If you’re an American, you vote because you have the freedom to vote. So that generation has a sense of how effective one person’s vote can be.”
Also, Dr. Baines said, only the human species possesses what he called a transcendent dimension. “That’s an awareness that life goes on after we’re gone and that we can do things that will be remembered,” he said. “Voting is one of those things. The idea is, ‘I might not be around for what happens after the votes are counted, but at least I know that I put a footprint in the future.’”
Harriet Feferman, who turned 100 in June, was born the year the 19th Amendment was passed, which gave women the right to vote. She cast her first vote to re-elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“For as long as I’m here, I’ll never skip voting,” said Mrs. Feferman, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., and described President Trump as “a bad president.”
“I didn’t vote for him before,” she said, “and I won’t vote for him now.”
Mrs. Feferman’s vote could make a real difference in a state where recent polls show a tight race. In Kentucky, Mr. Trump has a solid — and most likely insurmountable — lead. But that hasn’t discouraged Chris Marks, 91, of Louisville, who plans to vote for Mr. Biden. “I just think maybe one extra vote will help,” she said.
Polls in the last few days have shown that older voters — those over 65 — are shifting in large numbers toward Mr. Biden. However, a survey by the Pew Research Center this summer showed strong support for Mr. Trump among the very old. It found that 58 percent of registered voters over 75 said they were either voting for or leaning toward Mr. Trump, and 41 percent voting for or leaning toward Mr. Biden, with 1 percent undecided.
“A lot of us have worked really hard to make this country great,” said Ray Blankenship, 94, who lives in Ohio, a swing state. He said he was voting for Mr. Trump “just to keep the country running right now.”
Eighty-eight percent of those aged 75 and older said the outcome mattered greatly.
“It’s about who you are,” said Dr. Kent Neff, 81, a retired psychiatrist in Sisters, Ore. “The fact that I wouldn’t be around has no bearing on whether I would vote. If I were going to die in the next week, voting would still be high on my list.”
Judy Welles, a retired parish minister in Portland, Ore., battling a rare cancer that originated in her appendix, told her surgeon she had two goals: to see her 77th birthday (she did, on Sept. 4), and to cast her vote for Mr. Biden, even if she would not be alive to see the outcome. Her mail-in ballot was expected to arrive on Oct. 14.
“I’m quite sure I’ll live until then,” she said in a phone interview on Sept. 23, explaining that she was being kept alive with the help of intravenous nutrition. “Then I’ll fill out the ballot and send it out as quickly as possible.”
The day after that interview, Ms. Welles changed her mind. She decided to discontinue the nutrition and enter hospice care while still relatively strong. Reasoning that Mr. Biden would win Oregon even if she didn’t live long enough to vote for him, she turned her attention to a state where the race is tighter.
On Sept. 28, through a campaign called Vote Forward, she wrote 15 letters to registered voters in Pennsylvania, the state where she lived before moving to Oregon a decade ago, and where polls show Mr. Biden is in a tougher battle.
“I told them that I’m dying, that this is the most important election ever, that I can’t imagine not voting and would they please exercise their right to vote,” she said that day in a FaceTime call.
“I’m not afraid to play the death card. If that’s going to impress somebody into voting, that would be great.”
A few hours after sealing the letters, Ms. Welles took a prescription her physician had written for her, in accordance with Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. Then, surrounded by family members, she died.
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