Another police shooting.
A child is suffering the lifelong impacts of lead poisoning.
Families are struggling to find a place to live.
These are all outcomes that affect the health of everyone in our community and are heavily influenced by our participation in the civic duty of voting. Education, housing, nutrition and law enforcement policies are just some of the examples of how our health is directly impacted by the policies our government does or does not enact.
Voting is one of the main ways that we can speak up and directly influence the conditions that can improve our own health and the health of our community. Overwhelmingly, People of Color, people with disabilities, low-income Americans, the uninsured, and young people are those most likely to be unregistered to vote as well as to experience barriers to voter registration.
This double whammy of increased barriers to voting and decreased participation has been shown to impact who elected officials are responsive to. Politicians are less responsive to people who are nonvoting or from communities with low voter turnout. This in turn leads to policies that favor those who show up at the polls, at times at the expense of those who do not or are not able to.
How our schools are run, where corporations are allowed to build facilities that pollute the environment we live in, who has access to public programs like Medicaid, food stamps, housing or child care assistance, all this is determined by elected officials. Therefore, a harmful cycle has developed where our community started behind due to racist policies.
These policies made access to the ballot box difficult for some and undesirable for others. A low turnout left us with elected officials who deprioritized our communities’ needs and further deepened the disadvantage we face in attaining a fair level of health.
The good news is that there are ways we can break this cycle. Young adults who vote and are civically engaged have been shown to have better mental health, achieve higher levels of education, and have higher incomes.
Communities that have high voter turnout, especially those with high rates of poverty, have lower income inequality and higher wages. And to drive that point home further, in communities with high socio-economic inequality and poor voter turnout, surveys have shown worse self-reported health compared to those that have a higher voter turnout.
Simply put, voting is good for your health.
Enfranchisement, improving access to voting, of Black voters in particular has been associated with reductions in Black AND white child education gaps. Enfranchisement of women has been linked with subsequent increased spending on children and even lower child mortality.
Physicians and other health care providers are becoming more aware of the impact of voting and civic participation on the health and well-being of their patients and communities. Dr. Alister Martin, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, started the organization Vot-ER in 2019 to help patients get registered to vote while they were in the hospital.
As an ER doctor, Martin recognized that there are no prescriptions or procedures that fix many of the conditions responsible for his patients’ poor health such as homelessness, hunger, joblessness or violence. Vot-ER has since collaborated with over 300 health institutions across the country to provide doctors, nurses and other health care staff with tools that make helping someone register to vote easy.
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Vot-ER helped over 46,700 people vote by assisting with registration or showing how to request a mail-in ballot to vote from home. To date, a dozen Minnesota health care institutions have had providers utilize Vot-ER tools.
It should be noted that helping people exercise their right to vote is not the same as trying to influence whom or what someone votes for. Most all health care institutions have policies against expressing a political affiliation or posting or wearing any campaign materials from a specific candidate or about a specific ballot measure.
However, this is fundamentally different from helping individuals register to vote, and our current laws even acknowledge this. The U.S. tax code supports voter registration at nonprofit 501©(3) organizations (which applies to most hospitals in the U.S.), and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 states that venues that provide public assistance, including Medicaid services, are empowered to register eligible voters.
So if your doctor asks you if you are registered to vote, know that it is not a question they are posing just to get in your business. It is directly tied to your health. I hope that you are registered and plan to vote on November 2. If not, you can still register on election day—see below.
There is a saying that when it comes to decisions being made about public policy, either you are at the table or you are on the menu. Let’s make sure our community’s health is a priority on the 2022 table.
To register to vote on election day—know what you need to bring by checking out this tip sheet.
Dr. Nathan T. Chomilo is the medical director for the State of Minnesota’s Medicaid/Medical Assistance & MinnesotaCare programs and practices as a general pediatrician in Brooklyn Center with Park Nicollet. He is a board member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.