In 2020, we’ve been asked to do a lot. Between social distancing, wearing a mask, and removing many of our favorite activities from daily routines, life looks very different today than it did in February as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, as election day looms ever closer in the United States, we’re being asking to do something else in a completely different way than most of us ever have before. Vote. Luckily, staff and students at Penn Medicine and the Perelman School of Medicine are going all out to make sure everyone can make their voices heard.
Voting from the Patient Room
For many of us, a typical election day involves visiting a local polling place either before work, during a lunch break, or after the work day is done, but what about those who find themselves in the hospital?
Originally established in 2016, Penn Medicine Votes is a health system-wide, nonpartisan initiative that helps patients and employees vote in a safe and healthy manner. Indeed, for the thousands of local area residents who weren’t planning on being admitted to a hospital on or around election day, the prospect of identifying a way to vote can seem incredibly daunting if not altogether impossible. “Penn Medicine Votes helps in ensuring that hospital patients can be provided with an absentee ballot the day of the election,” said Associate Director of Government Relations, Steven Cobb. “Fortunately, we were already working on this during the last general election, and regulations have been simplified so it’s become far easier for these individuals to participate in the democratic process than in previous elections.” For patients in Philadelphia, the process is as simple as requesting a ballot and casting their vote. “We have staff here that can help patients complete a ballot,” Cobb said. “Once it’s completed, that staff member will deliver the ballot to city hall.”
The Penn Medicine Votes initiative is not just about patients. There has been a concentrated effort aimed at ensuring both patients and staff who may be at a clinical location all day have the opportunity to vote. Plus, there has also been a system wide effort to stress the importance of voting. “I want to urge every member of the Penn Medicine community who is eligible to vote this year to please exercise your right. In our country, law and policy directly affect population health and, this year, policies that impact our health system and our patients are at stake,” wrote UPHS CEO Kevin Mahoney in a message to the Penn Medicine community, in which he also emphasized the many important issues in health care that are at stake.
Based on public data on voting, this messaging is more relevant and needed than ever before. Data shows that around 88 million eligible voters chose not to participate in the 2016 general election. “As health care providers, we are experts in removing barriers in accessing care. Penn Medicine Votes is working to apply that same logic, that same thinking, to voting,” Mahoney noted.
One resource that has been fundamental in supporting Penn Medicine Votes is Penn Medicine’s partnership with VotER. On the organization’s web site, staff and patients can register to vote, make a plan for how to vote, and encourage family and friends to vote safely.
But the real engine behind Penn Votes has been involvement by students at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Yoonhee Ha, an MD-PhD student, is one of the student leaders of the VotER initiative. “I joined VotER because I wanted to ensure that our patients would have the opportunity to register to vote and have their voices heard this election. Additionally, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there was an urgent imperative to provide our patients, employees, and trainees with a mechanism for voting safely.”
Ha’s efforts have been quite productive, leading to the acquisition of over 1,000 “badge backers” — cards on lanyards that contain a QR code. Patients and staff can scan these codes with their phones and be automatically sent to the VotER website. Ha has also been active in distributing voter information and convincing peers to join in the program.
While the VotER initiative is ultimately about encouraging every citizen to vote, the website helps cheer on these cheerleaders by providing the participating medical schools with the opportunity to score bragging rights. On the leaderboard page, medical schools can see how they stack up to peer institutions, with metrics on number of voters registered, mail-in ballots requested, and total patients helped. At the time this blog was published, Penn Medicine led in each of these categories!
Make a Plan to Vote Safely from your Home (or Voting Booth)
With so much uncertainty around nearly every aspect of life this year, there’s never been a greater need for prospective voters to make a plan on how to vote safely, while ensuring their vote counts. One option has been to cast a ballot by mail. This option allows voters to avoid lines and potential exposure to COVID-19 by voting from the safety of their homes. The deadline for registered voters to request these ballots in New Jersey, Friday, October 23, 2020 , Pennsylvania is Tuesday, October 27, 2020, and Delaware, Friday, October, 30, 2020.. For those who plan to vote by mail, it’s important to make sure you follow the specific instructions for completing and mailing your ballot. If you’re looking for information on how to make sure your mail-in ballot counts, Penn’s Dr. Katherine Hamilton recently took to social media to share a humorous video for Pennsylvania voters on “naked ballots.”
But what about those who plan on vote in person? Richard C. Wender, MD, Chair of Family Medicine and Community Health, has helpful advice on this. “This year, probably more than any year in our history, people really need to plan ahead for their voting experience.” Some of Wender’s recommendations include wearing a mask and staying six feet apart from others, using hand sanitizer after touching anything, and planning to vote during lower volume hours, like late in the morning.
Another unknown when it comes to election day is how long lines might be, with estimates that some polling places may have wait times stretching across multiple hours. “Bring some water,” Wender said. “Bring a snack. Don’t forget your hand sanitizer. Be mentally ready. Bring something to read. Channel your ‘Zen’ moment.”
Knowing how important it is to vote, casting that vote safely, and encouraging other to do so is of critical importance. After all, Philadelphia is where the democratic tradition began, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the selection of our first president in 1789. As many across Penn Medicine will tell you, your voice matters, and so does your vote.