A Local Doctor Is Helping Hospital Patients Vote

A little-known policy helps newly hospitalized patients vote.

By Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu’s calculations, as many as 222,000 Americans could be admitted to the hospital during the five days leading up to the election. Voting is likely the last thing on those patients’ minds—but she’s trying to change that.

Okwerekwu—a first-year psychiatry resident at Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) and the cofounder of its Social Justice Coalition, along with Dr. James McKenzie—is getting the word out to newly hospitalized patients that their voices still matter, in sickness or in health. She’s educating patients about a little-known Massachusetts voting law: Registered voters who are admitted to the hospital within five days of an election may apply for an absentee ballot and request that it be delivered by an elections official or a friend, family member, or other proxy.

Okwerekwu wrote about the issue for Stat News, where she is a regular columnist, and is volunteering her time to help with paperwork and serve as a proxy, if needed.

“It wasn’t information I readily found on the internet. I feel like I’m pretty savvy, but it was shocking to me how little information is out there,” she says. “If more people like me could at least do the ground work, at least know what the steps are, then they can initiate those conversations with patients and reduce the number of obstacles that they would have to overcome.”

The issue is doubly important, Okwerekwu says, because people already facing obstacles, such as low-income and minority voters, tend to find themselves in the hospital at disproportionately high rates.

“The people who do face the most severe health consequences and who are hospitalized for longer periods of time, those populations also happen to be populations that are oppressed in other situations as well,” she says. “It’s important to me, as a black woman, to make sure that I am doing my part to make sure everybody’s voice is heard.”

Despite her best efforts, there are still many voices that likely won’t be heard. The policy doesn’t apply to someone who was hospitalized on, say, the sixth day before an election, nor does it extend to those outside the hospital who are still not well enough to make it to the polls. That’s not an insignificant number: Past U.S. Census data has estimated that 14.9 percent of people who don’t vote abstain because of illness or disability.

It’s not a perfect solution, Okwerekwu admits, but her fight is helping to afford hospital patients something they can so easily lose: agency.

“Unless you have a loved one in the hospital, how often do you think about the rights of hospitalized patients?” she asks. “It’s just a way to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard, no matter what condition you are facing. You are still a person, and your voice is still equal to every other voice.”