Boston ER Doctor Helps Patients Register To Vote

10 hours ago
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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Walk into a hospital, likely through automatic doors, take a seat in a waiting room, and then take a look around.

ALISTER MARTIN: And over your left shoulder, you might see a sign - hopefully a well-designed poster that says...

FADEL: Wash your hands, cover your face, keep social distance - yes, yes and yes. But over a hundred hospitals in the U.S. also have posters in their waiting rooms that say...

MARTIN: We can help you register to vote.

FADEL: That's Alister Martin, an emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General in Boston and the man behind a program called VotER. Get it - voter? And these days, Dr. Martin says the act of voting has become even more urgent.

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MARTIN: COVID-19 has turned voting into a public health issue - full stop. When you look at the demographics of who is not registered to vote in this country, it's the same demographic groups who need to use places like ERs to get primary care.

FADEL: When he was younger, that's the situation his mother was in. She had breast cancer. It's what motivated him to go to medical school in the first place. And when Alister Martin wasn't studying, he was thinking about who else gets their primary care at ERs - young people, people of color, people without insurance or with low income. And he brainstormed how to increase their political power by turning them into voters.

MARTIN: I had met and learned of an organization called TurboVote, which is a wonderful organization that really is committed to making it easier for people to get registered to vote. And so I decided to start tinkering around with this web interface and then went to the folks over at TurboVote and another group and put together a very, very basic prototype, which was effectively a kiosk. It just sits there in the waiting room, often in the corner, that has a big sign over it that says, register to vote here. Send this text message to this number or use this QR code, and you register yourself to vote on the phone.

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MARTIN: The important thing about all this to remember is there aren't any doctors or nurses or social workers who are doing the voter registration paperwork. This is all driven by the patient themselves.

FADEL: Dr. Martin and a team of volunteers got the first kiosk set up last year. And since then, more hospitals have become interested in having VotER in their waiting rooms.

MARTIN: My vision for this work is to have VotER be out of business. We shouldn't need to get registered at a hospital. We should live in a country where if you are a citizen of this country, you are automatically registered to vote, that your voice automatically counts, you don't have to jump through this hoop and that hoop. For far too many Americans, registering to vote is an obstacle course.

The hope for me is that this story is one of physicians and health care providers stepping up to not only do their duty to heal patients on the individual level but to step up and heal our nation.

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FADEL: That's Dr. Alister Martin, founder of VotER. He's well aware that some patients might want to avoid using a kiosk during the pandemic, so he and a number of participating health care workers are carrying a card with a QR code so all patients have to do is whip out their phones and scan it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.