Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Politics and Healthcare

US doctors and hospitals offer a new treatment: voter registration

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: (Published 12 October 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m3895

Linked Opinion

Is breaking down barriers to voting a dimension of healthcare?

  1. Lynne Peeples, freelance journalist
  1. Seattle
  1. lpeeples{at}

Some US health professionals are acting on their belief that the government plays a role in creating healthy communities—and that it responds more to the needs of people who vote. Lynne Peeples reports on the doctors and hospitals helping patients sign up to vote

Several red, white, and blue posters spot the walls in the emergency waiting area at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. In the midst of a pandemic, the message on these posters—“Register to vote here”—may seem even more peculiar than the “DO NOT SIT HERE” notices on every second chair in the room.

“The moment someone turns around from triage to have a seat, a poster is right there at eye level,” says Herbie Duber, an emergency medicine doctor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Harborview.

The posters are part of a novel voter registration effort called VotER, launched in Boston late last year and now active in about 115 hospitals around the US. They also reflect a larger movement among medical professionals to tackle the upstream social and political factors that contribute to illness. Specifically, there’s an increasing awareness that patients who use emergency rooms (ERs) in the US—whether for emergent or non-emergent issues—are disproportionately represented among the nearly one in four Americans who are eligible yet not registered to vote.1 A lot of these same ER users are also disproportionately at risk from health inequities, including greater impacts from covid-19.

“This pandemic has highlighted the disparities that exist,” Duber tells The BMJ. “We have long known that systems have differential impacts on different populations—often detrimental to nonwhite populations.”

At the core of the VotER campaign is a suite of posters, stickers, handouts, and a Healthy Democracy Kit, all provided free to doctors. The kit includes a lanyard and ID …

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