Bernard J. Wolfson
Johnathon Talamantes, of South-Central Los Angeles, broke his hip in a car accident on Oct. 22 and underwent surgery five days later at a public hospital near downtown.
His post-op recovery will keep him in the hospital, L.A. County+USC Medical Center, beyond Election Day, and as he prepared himself for the surgery, he wondered what that would mean.
“One of the first things I asked my nurse this morning was, ‘Oh, how am I going to vote?’” Talamantes, 30, said from his hospital bed the day before the operation.
He initially thought of asking his mom to rummage through a pile of papers at the home he shares with her and bring him the mail-in ballot that he, like all registered California voters, received for this election.
But then staffers at LAC+USC told him about another option: They could help him get an emergency ballot and cast his vote without having to get out of bed. So Talamantes told his mom not to bother.
“I don’t want her coming down here, because of the COVID restrictions,” he said.
California law protects the rights of voters who are in the hospital or other care facilities, or confined at home. It allows them to get help from anyone they choose — other than an employer or a union representative — and to cast an emergency ballot.
At least 37 other states allow emergency voting for medical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But practices vary.
In some states, only family members can assist hospitalized patients with voting from the hospital.
In California, New York and several other states, hospital employees and volunteers can help a patient complete an emergency ballot application. They can pick up the ballot for the patient and deliver the finished ballot back to the election office or deposit it in an official drop box.
In North Carolina, by contrast, it is a felony for a health care worker to assist a patient with voting.
In 18 states, the law allows local election boards to send representatives directly to patients’ bedsides, though six of those states have canceled that service this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Kelly Wong, founder of Patient Voting, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing turnout among registered voters unexpectedly hospitalized around election time.
The group’s website features an interactive map of the United States with state-by-state information on voting while in the hospital. It also allows patients to check whether they are registered to vote.
Wong, an emergency room resident at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, recalled that when she was a medical student working in an ER, patients who were about to be admitted to the hospital would tell her, “‘I can’t be admitted; I have let the dogs out, or I’m the sole caretaker of my grandmother.’” Then during the election of 2016, she heard, “‘I can’t stay. I have to go vote.’”
“That really caught my attention,” Wong said. She did research and learned patients could vote in the hospital using an emergency ballot — something none of her co-workers knew. “Our patients don’t know this, she said. “It should be our job to tell them.”
Some U.S. hospitals have been assisting patients with voting in major elections for two decades or more, part of a broader tendency in the health care industry toward civic engagement.
Community clinics register voters in their waiting rooms or at public registration drives. In an increasing number of ERs, patients and their families are offered the chance to register. Many hospitals, including LAC+USC, this year will have mobile voting units on-site, open to staff members, patients who are well enough to walk, and their families.
These efforts come against the backdrop of health care’s starring role in the nation’s heated political drama: COVID-19 has become a top presidential campaign issue, while the U.S. Supreme Court, its conservative majority fortified this week, prepares to hear a case — one week after the election — that could be the death knell for the Affordable Care Act.
The pandemic has made inpatient voting a challenge because of tight restrictions at hospitals and the many employees furloughed, laid off or working at home. And a significant increase in early voting and the use of mail-in ballots in many states may reduce the number of patients who need help.
“The majority of our patients, I am hoping, will have voted already, because that will alleviate the stress — for them, it’s one less thing to worry about,” said Camille Camello, associate director of volunteer services at the nearly 900-bed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which has a program to help inpatients vote. In past elections, she said, over 200 patients have requested ballots.
At LAC+USC, administrators have been trying to ensure patients know they can get help voting. Posters line the walls of common spaces and staffers are handing out flyers with voting information to every patient who is admitted, said Gabriela Hernandez, the hospital’s director of volunteer services.
Hernandez said she and about 25 volunteers have been walking the halls in the inpatient units of the hospital for the past month, asking patients if they want help voting.
Patients who say yes get emergency ballot applications, which the hospital has been sending to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder for verification. The ballot applications will continue to be made available to patients up to the morning of Election Day.
Hernandez and her team will collect the ballots and distribute them to patients, then return them to the registrar before the 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day.
Other hospitals have a more collapsed timeline.
At St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, hospital staffers will start asking patients Monday if they want voting assistance and bring them ballots on Election Day, said Gian Santos, manager of volunteer services at the hospital. In the 2016 election, only about seven or eight patients voted that way, Santos said.
St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, plans to do everything — applications and ballots — on Election Day.
For big hospitals, inpatient voting can be a massive undertaking. People often require assistance in multiple languages, and the hospitals frequently contract with translation services to accommodate them.
Many hospitals receive patients from numerous counties — and across state lines.
Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan plans to assist as many as 200 patients from nine counties in New York state and three in New Jersey, said Erin Smith, an obstetrical nurse navigator who, along with fellow OB nurse navigator Lisa Schavrien, is leading the effort.
The hospital will assign one or two “runners” to each of the 12 county election boards, Smith said. For her, enabling vulnerable patients to exercise their right to vote is worth the effort.
“If we’re not helping them do it, how many thousands of people are not voting in elections because they were in a car accident, because they had appendicitis, because they had unexpected brain surgery?” Smith asked.
“If we’re not making it happen in the hospital, it kind of feels to me like voter suppression.”
Subscribe to KHN’s free Morning Briefing.