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A Rhode Island doctor is helping patients vote from their hospital beds

Dr. Kelly Wong founded Patient Voting so people don't have to choose between getting treatment and casting ballots

Dr. Kelly Wong
Dr. Kelly WongPatient Voting

PROVIDENCE — In 2016, two patients scheduled to be admitted to a hospital in South Dakota balked at their admittance. Why? They wanted to go vote in the presidential election.

Dr. Kelly Wong, then a medical student at that hospital, said she found their devotion to voting admirable. “It was very brave and patriotic,” she said.

But the experience was also very frustrating, Wong said, because the patients could not do their civic duty while also getting the health care they needed.

So Wong, now an emergency medicine resident at Brown University, founded Patient Voting, a nonpartisan group that will help registered voters across the country cast emergency ballots if they’re unexpectedly hospitalized in the days and weeks leading up to November’s presidential election.

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Wong’s initiative is just one of a growing number of efforts by medical professionals and institutions to deliver essential health care and timely access to the ballot box.

  • Alister Martin, an emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is assembling thousands of voter registration kits for distribution at hospitals and doctor’s offices through an organization he founded called VotER.
  • Harvard and Yale medical school students are planning a contest to see which of the Ivy League rivals can register the most voters through an effort called Med Out the Vote.
  • And hospitals, doctors, and health care institutions around the nation are taking part in Civic Health Month, a nationwide campaign that launched Aug. 1.

Wong founded Patient Voting in 2018, but she expects it will serve even more people during this year’s presidential election, including those hospitalized with the coronavirus.

“I hope it will be utilized a lot in the fall,” she said. “I plan on mentioning it to anyone I meet in the hospital. We have good support locally. More and more physicians are taking a stance on helping their patients vote.”

Wong said the Patient Voting process involves asking patients and their family members if they are interested in voting in the election. If they are, they are given state-specific voting instructions, links to the Patient Voting website, and contact information for hospital staff who can help them with emergency ballots.

If possible, they’re provided with printed copies of emergency ballot applications, and Wong said medical personnel will help coordinate the pickup and delivery of those ballots.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the most common reason why states let voters cast an emergency ballot is medical: Hospital admissions, disabilities, or injuries from accidents, for example.

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Rhode Island has four categories of mail ballots, including one for people who are “in a hospital, convalescent home, nursing home, rest home, or similar institution within the State of Rhode Island.” In those cases, a bipartisan pair of election officials will bring mail ballots to hospitalized patients.

During the pandemic, elections officials have not been going into hospitals, but have instead coordinated with bipartisan employees at the hospitals to deliver and pick up the mail ballots from patients, said Miguel Nunez, deputy director of elections.

Mail ballot applications are due Oct. 13 for the general election. Within 20 days of the election, people also can vote using an emergency mail ballot.

All mail ballots must be received by the Board of Elections, at 2000 Plainfield Pike in Cranston, by 8 p.m. the night of the election, and emergency ballots can be inserted into voting machines at local boards of canvassers.

Wong said patients can have family or friends serve as authorized messengers to pick up and deliver the emergency ballots, and some doctors are willing to fill that role.

She said she realizes some patients might be too sick to focus on voting, but she wants to be sure those who do want to cast a ballot can do so without it affecting any health care decisions.

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“I think making sure they can vote and making sure their opinions and feelings are represented is a way for them to take ownership of their health,” Wong said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in the preparation of this story.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.