My thanks to Dr. Allison Berkowitz who recently introduced me to Dr. Alister Francois Martin, an Emergency Medical Specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Social Justice and Health Equity. Dr. Martin has introduced an innovative voter registration model for use in hospital emergency rooms. When he is not busy with his demanding job of caring for patients, he is performing his role as executive director of Vo+ER, an organization dedicated to promoting healthcare-based voter registration.
Dr. Martin tells the story of working late one February night in the emergency room at Massachusetts General when a young woman came in with her three children looking for a place to get warm. She had lost her housing and had been living in her car with her children for several nights but this night was too cold. Although he had no idea what to do, he also knew he could not discharge this family back into the cold. He called a social worker and was told that Massachusetts is a “right to shelter” state for families, but she needed proof of her residency in the state which she did not have. The solution was to get her registered to vote in Massachusetts. Even the homeless can register to vote.
When he asked her if she would like to register to vote, she replied that no one had ever asked her that before. He realized that social workers had been registering voters in that hospital for years and he needed to get involved. He had been active in politics before, working for the governor’s office in Vermont. He then earned a degree in public policy at the Kennedy School. But he had grown to believe people who were not registered to vote were so jaded that they never would respond to a voter registration appeal. Hearing the woman say that no one had ever asked her before prompted him to launch a campaign inviting people to participate in the electoral process.
The program places kiosks in hospital emergency rooms where patients can take the opportunity to register to vote. Posters are also displayed throughout the ER with a QR code that allows patients to use their phones to access the voting registration process. Doctors also wear lanyards with the code and are ready to assist anyone who decides to register. He reminds us that not all who visit the emergency room are in need of critical care, but many are there because they have no alternative means of health care. Many are among the millions of Americans who do not exercise their right to vote. Dr. Martin extends the invitation to them to participate in their constitutional right.
He recently connected with Mimi Abramovitz, Terry Mizrahi, and Tanya Rhodes Smith, leaders of the National Voter Mobilization Campaign VotingIsSocialWork.org. Vo+ER has created a section on their website where social workers can register and obtain lanyards and materials that will be useful in their campaign to register voters in social work setting. The goal is to register one or two million voters over the course of the next several months leading up to elections in November. Both voter registration efforts emphasize their campaigns are nonpartisan and people who decide to register receive no political information.
Americans who do not register and vote are generally the poor, less educated, young voters, and voters of color. According to a Knight Foundation Study, 100 million American citizens—representing 43 percent of the eligible voting population—did not cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election. A survey by the Pew Research Center found nonvoters to be younger—a third are 18- and 19-year-olds, and a third are between 30 and 49 years old. Forty-six percent of nonvoters are nonwhite compared 25 percent of voters. More than half (56%) earn less than $30,000 annually compared to 28 percent of voters.
Many nonvoters are among the unfortunate souls who are often at the mercy of a system that is ill-equipped to care for people in need of help from the coronavirus. Why? Because ill-advised tax cuts from three successive Republican administrations have left the public coffers bare. It was intentional and foolish. Warren Buffet recently helped rescue a hospital that primarily serves the rich. If he and others had been taxed sufficiently, we would have a healthcare system that is better equipped to work for everyone.
The covid-19 pandemic has revealed that our healthcare system is broken. It also revealed that it matters who our leaders are. It is not about ideology; it is about competence, empathy, and a willingness to include the poor and less fortunate among those who matter. We must remember this when we go to the polls, because we literally could be voting for our lives.