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The Power of Voting in a Pandemic: A Civic Health Month Event Recap

On Wednesday, August 6th, the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation helped host a webinar featuring leaders in the civic engagement and healthcare fields. From discussions of voter suppression to the positive impacts that voting has on health, the panelists covered a lot of ground. Our main takeaway from them was that voting should become part of the usual set of healthy habits healthcare providers tell patients to adopt.Perhaps the best quote of the day emphasizing this point came from Dr. Deborah Turner, from the League of Women Voters, who said, “Your vote is a main power in a democracy like ours. Nothing changes if you don’t vote.”

Many patients are unaware that by voting, they can begin to address the issues that come between them and a healthy lifestyle. However, the past few months have been the perfect storm for triggering widespread efforts to build action around making sure patients are civically engaged about the things that matter to them and their health. Dr. Alister Martin, Executive Director of VotER, noted that, with many DMVs being closed due to COVID-19, other places must step in to replace their role in facilitating voter registration.

That’s where healthcare organizations come in. During a pandemic, hospitals and health centers are some of the few places still visited frequently by people. “Physicians ask patients all kinds of awkward questions. There shouldn’t be a stigma against getting people to participate in what is the most important civic duty that we have in our country,” he continued.

It seems that this message is getting out too. After the Black Lives Matter protests picked up speed in May and June, orders of Healthy Democracy Kits—which help providers connect their patients to digital voter registration resources — have exponentially increased, primarily thanks to medical students. They understand the connection highlighted by Professor Parissa Ballard, from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, that “civic participation, voting, and equity are connected.” By organizing activities such as voter registration competitions and Twitter storms, medical students are capitalizing on their connections to get patients and friends registered to vote and become better able to use their voice.

According to Dr. Liz McKenna, from Johns Hopkins University, these types of quality connections with others really help to differentiate between a poor campaign and a successful campaign. Recognizing that they are trusted individuals in their patients’ lives, doctors, nurses, social workers, and medical students are all strengthening such vital connections by checking that their patients are looking out for their civic health too — and that starts by making sure patients are ready to vote.

A full recording of the webinar can be viewed here.