Two years ago, when I was still in residency I happened to be on overnight call the day prior to election day.
An associate program director of my residency program asked me if I wouldn’t mind being a doctor of record who evaluates whether I agree a patient is too sick to go to the polls. They forwarded to me names of patients who expressed interest in voting and were already registered to vote. I evaluated their hospitalization, and if I agreed they would not be discharged from the hospital and make it to the polls, I signed an emergency ballot request form with a notary present, which formalized a request for an emergency ballot. At that time, a medical student named Dorothy Charles, who organized the voting effort, ran the ballots over to City Hall and famously had to confront Vito Canuso, a Republican lawmaker, who was trying to block hospitalized registered voters from having their votes count. Now, Penn law students, have taken over the effort at Presbyterian Hospital with Dr. Judd Flesch, and are helping more hospitalized voters get their votes count.
As I reflect on this the week before the midterm elections – I realize I don’t work at a hospital that has procedures in place for hospitalized patients to be able to vote on election day. Admittedly, even having been a part of the effort to help patients previously, I was intimidated by my lack of knowledge of what exactly it was that Dorothy Charles did to organize the vote for hospitalized voters. For a couple days, I latched on to the excuse that a few dozen votes was not worth the effort to arrange emergency ballots.
But the progressively worsening stories about the yet another atrocity that cycle by the hour are simultaneously overwhelming and impossible to ignore. The upcoming midterm elections represent one of the most important for our nation and possibly our world’s future. In the last few years alone, we have had the politicians that represent the majority in the House and Senate ignore the impending doom of global warming, gun-related mortality that exceeds war-related mortality, and the utility of health care for those with pre-existing conditions. These politicians don’t have the backing of major physician groups. Why? Because physicians – not politicians are the ones who have to explain to patients, “your insurance did not cover this, so we will do [subpar, clinically inferior care]” instead, because that is what that patient can afford.
On a personal level, as a doctor who serves many African American veterans who lived through the civil rights movements, I feel frustrated when I walk into a room and see a veteran watching news about lawmakers blocking primarily African American votes. If certain lawmakers are going to – even with innocent intention – enact policies that happen to precisely target a group by race, the least I can do to combat this is to ensure a hospitalization does not become another barrier in that person’s way.
All voters, regardless of race, hospitalization status, or political affiliation, deserve the chance to vote.
With this in mind, I took the quick step to look up how to do what Dorothy Charles helped us do at Presbyterian Hospital two years ago, and found the paperwork to arrange emergency ballots. It took five minutes to find the paperwork (Pennsylvania is remarkably organized), ten minutes on a smartphone to get a mobile notary, and five minutes to print the paperwork. A patient-designated volunteer will bring ballots to City Hall.
On Tuesday, I’ll be another doctor alongside many in Philadelphia who helps hospitalized patients get their votes counted by arranging emergency ballots.
During the midterm elections next week, I want to make sure my patients vote — because they deserve the right to choose what their future looks like. I hope to encourage other physicians who read this to look up how to arrange emergency ballots for their patients as well. And at the very least, if a state creates barriers for hospitalized patients to vote, hopefully physicians can encourage colleagues to vote.
This may only help a handful of patients, but every vote counts and as I found out, it’s not as intimidating to arrange emergency ballots as it may seem.
Priya Joshi is a hospitalist.
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