A Diagnosis for a Healthier Democracy

How doctors can help register their patients safely and increase voter registration

By Noam Brenner and Marin Darsie, MD

Over the past eight months, I have joined with thousands of healthcare providers nationwide to ensure that my patients have a safe way to vote. COVID-19 has impacted our country in many ways, including making it harder to register to vote. A report by The Center for Election Innovation and Research revealed the pandemic’s steep impact. In the 12 states studied, monthly voter registrations in 2020 fell from almost 800,000 in February to less than 200,000 in April.

Beyond impacting our democracy, the decline in voter registration is also a health issue because 80% of our community’s health is determined by social factors, such as access to quality housing or healthy food. I believe that voting is one of the most effective ways to improve these factors. Yet, one in four Americans is not registered to vote.

To close the voter registration gap, VotER, a non-partisan organization based at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital that assists healthcare providers with registering their patients to vote, created new ways to help. What started in October 2019 in two emergency departments has grown into a movement of over 25,000 healthcare providers across over 300 hospitals and community health centers. UW Health was one of first health systems to partner with VotER.

VotER encourages medical professionals to address the underlying social determinants of health by changing the culture of medicine. Our patients’ health is impacted by many local and national health policies, which they can most effectively advocate for change by exercising their right to vote. Through posters, badges and text messages, VotER makes it easier for healthcare professionals to help patients participate in the voting process. VotER’s most popular tool is the Healthy Democracy Kit, a VotER lanyard and ID badge, which displays a Ready to Vote? message and a QR code. The QR code directs users to an online voter registration portal that allows them to register to vote within minutes. In one weekend, I helped 22 coworkers register to vote or request their absentee ballot. VotER volunteers have helped more than 1,000 Wisconsinites and about 45,000 people around the country get ready to vote in the past four months.

Our coalition of about 30 VotER volunteers at UW Health and UW School of Medicine and Public Health have placed more than 500 VotER posters in UW hospitals and clinics around the greater Madison area. Initiated by physicians, UW Health Wingra and Odana clinics hosted the Madison City Clerk’s Office employees for several voter registration events this fall. VotER volunteers have also coordinated the Wisconsin Medical Society, Dane County Medical Society and Wisconsin’s chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians to emphasize the importance of getting out the vote within the medical community. Finally, UW VotER volunteers have supported other voter registration events in the community.

Nationwide, VotER has gained more than 100 partners in this effort, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Student National Medical Association. Locally, the League of Women Voters of Dane County has been an amazing partner. They have encouraged us to send any voter who is having difficulties navigating the process or obtaining valid identification to their Voters Helpline at 608-285-2141.

VotER is one example of the many organizations working hard to help the country rebound from a threateningly low level of civic participation ‒ in the pursuit of a healthier democracy. Beyond the hundreds of individuals my colleagues and I have personally assisted in preparing to vote, I believe that VotER has benefitted the field of medicine and our communities’ health by normalizing civic engagement by healthcare professionals.


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