It is estimated that more than 50 million eligible people in the United States are not registered to vote. One emergency medicine physician at the MGH has made it his mission to decrease that statistic – one person at a time.

“I was really inspired by what I see in the Emergency Department every single day, and what my colleagues see every time they go to work,” says Alister Martin, MD, MPP, of the MGH Emergency Department (ED). “So much of what we do in the ED is true medical emergency care, but a large portion of what we also see are the faces of failed public policy. These are the folks that come to us with problems that have their roots in upstream public policy issues like homelessness, addiction, food insecurity and lack of access to mental health care in this country. And, there are two things we can do about it. We can complain and wring our hands, or we can try – as physicians, as physician assistants and as nurses – to get involved in some small way and make the system better. We can be part of the solution.”

Martin’s solution comes in the form of a newly created VotER initiative, providing patients, visitors and staff with the opportunity to register to vote, or check to see if they are registered to vote, while at the MGH. The program – created in coordination with a team from Harvard Kennedy School, a tech nonprofit called TurboVote, and the behavioral sciences firm ideas42 – features two iPad-based kiosks located in the ED’s registration area and in a non-acute waiting room. In addition, flyers are posted throughout the ED with the program’s website and a QR code, which allows people to scan a barcode with their cellphone for immediate access to the site.

Martin stresses the program is totally optional, non-partisan and does not impact or interrupt clinical care. “Our VotER program is aimed at trying to empower our patient population to register to vote,” he says. “This is because what we’ve seen is a demographic overlap for those who are not registered to vote in this country and those who use EDs nationwide for what we call low-acuity complaints or nonemergent complaints. The top three populations in both categories are those who are low-income, people of color and young Americans. We saw that there is an incredible opportunity to offer voter registration to these groups while they are at the hospital.”

As part of the initiative, Martin says, voters at the MGH will also be invited to participate in a separate and optional research study examining the registration rates to better understand if registering in an ED setting helps with access to registration, ease of registration and subsequent voter turnout at the polls. The study is slated to run through the national presidential election in November 2020, however, the registration kiosks will remain in the ED to continue to promote the importance of voter registration.  

“Our department is proud to be the first in the nation to offer this valuable resource in the ED and to lead a growing group of departments across the country that will join us in offering this important service,” says David Brown, MD, chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine. “We are pleased that the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia have already introduced the VotER program in their emergency departments and we have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of outreach from interested hospitals across the country.”

Martin says he believes building a more inclusive health care system starts with creating a more inclusive democracy and the first step in that process is getting more people registered to vote. “The bottom line is we want to make it easier for people to register to vote. It’s easy. It takes 90 seconds with the VotER platform. And, it’s so important.”

For more information about the VotER program, visit www.vot-ER.org. To register to vote, or to check registration status, visit www.vot-ER.org/Voter.