Disability and Voter Access – How to Ensure Hospital Patients Vote

The election is just around the corner. Millions of people have already cast their early vote and yet, millions more still need to cast it. Voting is an individual right of every American citizen in this country; yet, every American is not physically able to do it. A little-discussed topic in the realm of voting is how someone can vote even if they are hospitalized? Almost everyone, by now, has heard of and knows about the absentee ballot. This ballot allows you to vote early when you know you will be unavailable on election day. 

The question becomes, however, what happens if you suddenly become hospitalized in the days leading up to the election? Nobody plans to be injured, much less in the hospital. In that situation, you would still submit an absentee ballot; however, in most states it’s called an emergency absentee ballot. The concept is the same; though the procedures are not. Each state has its own set of rules regarding how to logistically allow a patient to cast a ballot, with some states allowing doctors, nurses, or social workers to cast the ballot for them. 

However, access to the polls for patients or people with disabilities is a bigger issue than we realize. The number of people who did not vote due to an illness or disability is staggering. In the 2016 election, 42% of people over the age of 65 and 16.5% of people between the ages of 45-64 did not vote due to an illness. In total, that is almost 60% of people over the age of 45 who did not vote due to an illness or disability. That same study looked at the income bracket for non-voters, the two largest groups of people who did not vote were on complete opposite ends of the income spectrum but declined to vote for different reasons. Approximately 23.9% of people making $150,000 or more did not vote because they were out of town on election day. On the other hand, 20% of people making less than $20,000 and 17.5% of people making between $20,000-$50,000 did not vote due to an illness or disability. In total, that is approximately 37.5% of people making $50,000 or less who did not vote due to an illness or disability. 

Those numbers don’t just signify access. They underscore a larger societal problem. Having an illness or disability during the election significantly impacts the voting process, and the voting process is where issues such as housing, income, job opportunities, or food insecurity issues can be addressed. These socioeconomic issues are usually the backbone of voters in this category of voters and yet, they were unable to participate due to an illness or disability. 

That needs to change. In my latest episode of the Disability News Report, I highlight the work of Patient Voting, an organization founded by an emergency medicine doctor who intentionally recruits volunteer doctors across the country to get the word out to patients about emergency absentee ballots. My interview with one of the volunteers, Oliver Tang, was particularly enlightening when he shared that physicians sometimes worry they are addressing the biological needs of the patient, but returning them back to “fundamental, harmful, upstream political, socioeconomic, environmental factors.” The remedy is “helping patient voters access the ballot box so they can play a more active voice in shaping the policy makers who influenced these upstream factors as well.” Consider all of this with the backdrop that patients with Medicare had the longest length of stay in the hospital, and patients from low-income communities had a higher rate of hospitalization. 

I invite you to watch the interview, keeping in mind all of these important life-sustaining factors some of us take for granted as healthy, able-bodied individuals. Voting matters. If you don’t think it matters, I challenge you to think about how you would feel if you were suddenly hospitalized on November 3. “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” — Aristotle

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