Written by Reed Hausser ’21
Voting, an act that allows individuals to make their needs known through electing individuals who will support and address those interests, is a right that was baked into American democracy. However, the ability for all individuals to vote, unfortunately, was not.
Initially, voting served as a platform for white land-owning men to continue their pursuit of supremacy, power, and wealth. Across centuries, through multiple amendments and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this right was extended to almost all Americans. Despite these protective measures, citizens of lower socioeconomic status and communities of color continue to be disproportionately disadvantaged by voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and dishonest politicking.
Understanding the inequality that still exists in the American democratic system is more important than ever, not just on the national stage but at the local level as well. In 2020, U.S. voters will elect a new President, and are also voting for 35 U.S. Senate seats, 435 seats in the U.S House of Representatives, and countless local officials including governors, lieutenant governors, attorneys general, state legislators, sheriffs, and more.
While contenders in major national elections can spend millions of dollars advertising the vast “changes” they will bring, local elections are much more likely to directly affect most individuals. Encouraging voter registration not only benefits participation in the national political conversation but is critical for shaping community development starting with local government. Recognizing the significance of election years and the impact of them on communities we serve, as medical students and future physicians, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) at the UVM Larner College of Medicine is working to increase voter registration, knowledge, and engagement.
As medical professionals, we know that individual and community health is a complex result of environment, education, infrastructure, policy, socioeconomics, and much more. Health and healthcare are inherently political. Locally, departments of health are tasked with recognizing health needs within their communities and working on direct interventions. These publicly funded departments are controlled by the officials we and our neighbors elect. Through encouraging our patients and colleagues to partake in the voting process, we empower them to, in some way, take their health into their own hands by electing officials who will work towards better health outcomes for them and those they care about. As medical professionals, participating in the voting process is not only a privilege, it is a responsibility.
The Social Justice Coalition Voter Registration project initially began as a peer-to-peer voter registration drive within the College; we were raising awareness about the upcoming elections among classmates and colleagues, helping them determine their registration status and register to vote if they hadn’t already done so. As the project grew, we saw an opportunity to expand our efforts beyond the 480 medical students at the College. Using tools developed by VotER (vot-er.org), a nonprofit focused on increasing population health through the democratic process and created by organizer Aliya Bhatia and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Alister Martin, M.D., we’ve been able to respectfully broach these conversations with patients and colleagues in clinical settings. Through VotER, any medical provider can request a “badge buddy” with a phone-scannable code called a “QR code,” which automatically directs individuals to a website that walks them through how to check their voter registration status and/or register to vote, if eligible. VotER also provides free digital materials, such as phone wallpapers, flyers, and discussion guides for providers to engage patients in non-partisan conversation while emphasizing the importance of their voice in all elections.
We believe it is possible to significantly empower our communities to support their health and well-being by electing officials who will hear their needs and address concerns. Although some may be concerned that voting is not appropriate to discuss in clinical settings, as practitioners serving our community it is our responsibility to do everything we can to help our patients help themselves, and we believe voting is the first step.
In addition, we have worked on a video message for our colleagues at the UVM Medical Center and the UVM Health Network. In the video, we speak about why voting is important, what hurdles we see with voting during a pandemic, and how to vote safely. Our hope is that through this video, we’ll encourage our colleagues to not only mobilize themselves, but also help encourage their patients to mobilize as well. View the video.
- Patients are not required or forced into conversations with care providers and their decisions to engage or not engage in such conversations does not affect patient care. All conversations are non-partisan in nature.