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Doctor Offices In Wisconsin Step In To Help Register Voters

Oct 14, 2020
Originally published on October 14, 2020 8:10 am
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In this country, a lot of voter registration events are on hold because of the pandemic, so some doctors offices are stepping in to help educate their patients. Maayan Silva from member station WUWM in Milwaukee explains this phenomenon.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: When patients come in to talk weight loss, high blood pressure or other issues, medical assistant Marshae Love has also started chatting with them about something new.

MARSHAE LOVE: So when I go in the rooms, just having conversation once I'm checking in the patients, they'll ask, like, hey, what's that around your neck? So I'll let them know it's just a way for them to register to vote.

SILVER: Love works at Progressive Community Health Centers in Milwaukee. The badge dangling around her neck is part of VotER, a nonpartisan effort to register patients in free clinics, community centers and ERs. Patients scan a QR code with their cellphone, and it takes them to a webpage about registering to vote and even a live person and help line if the patient gets stuck.

LOVE: Because people are on their phones all the time anyway, it's just something quick they can do, and it's one more thing they can knock off of their to-do list.

SILVER: Progressive also sends out monthly text messages asking about 9,500 patients to register. More than 80% of Progressive's patients are Black, with a growing population of Hmong and Burmese refugees. Ninety percent are low income. It's a population that's been hit hard by the pandemic, explains Dr. Madelaine Tully of Progressive.

MADELAINE TULLY: With people having to move in with family members, people having real issues with their financial security, their food security and all that - so you can imagine that registering to vote is not high on that list when you have, you know, issues of basic shelter, safety and food.

SILVER: There's a disparity in registration rates of Black and Latino voters as compared to white voters in Wisconsin and across the country. To bridge that gap, Dr. Alister Martin, an ER physician, founded VotER, which is being used by more than 300 hospitals nationwide.

ALISTER MARTIN: Registering to vote in this country is like running an obstacle course. Often, based on the state that you're in, there are lots of little pieces of information that you have to have before you even begin the process of registering to vote.

SILVER: He says the first step is just asking people to register and that health professionals are in a good place to start the conversation. One reason - the pandemic has made voting a public health issue.

MARTIN: Who better than health care workers to be able to sort of advise folks on, look - you know, this is not the sort of the usual way that this works, and you ought to think about taking extra precautions and voting in a safe way this time around.

SILVER: Martin says a lot of what affects patients' health is social - can they access healthy food, stable housing, good education, clean water? It's a nonpartisan program, and health care workers help patients figure out how to vote, but not who to vote for. So far, about 40,000 patients have gotten help registering or requesting ballots. Back in Milwaukee, Kivaonna Fields was leaving a checkup at Progressive. She's noticed the texts asking her to register.

KIVAONNA FIELDS: It just popped up like a regular alert, and it was asking, was I registered to vote? And if not, it had a link I could click to go in to.

SILVER: Turns out, Fields is already registered and has voted in every election, even the small ones.

FIELDS: Yes, ma'am. If you're selling water, I will vote if it should be cold (laughter).

SILVER: But she says if she were to move, she would be happy to reregister at her doctor's office.

For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.