Penn Votes Project: Making Sure the Unexpected Won’t Keep Hospital Patients from Voting

If you were eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election, you probably remember how politically charged the election was. It was a long race filled with debates, rallies, and heated discussions. No matter who you were voting for, you, like many voters, weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to cast your vote in such a high-stakes election.

Imagine people who ended up hospitalized the night before Election Day, whether for an unexpected illness or accident, who had no idea they would be needing an absentee ballot the week before. Would they completely miss the opportunity to participate in the election and receive their “I Voted” sticker?

This question is what prompted “Presby Votes” in 2016. A medical student on rotation in the inpatient services at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center noticed many of the patients on her service were unexpectedly hospitalized and were not going to be able to vote. After discussing the idea with her resident and Dr. Judd Flesch, assistant professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and site director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program, Presby Votes was born.

“We recognize as a health system the stress, the strain, and the disruption that illness can cause. At times, when illness happens, a lot of the other important pieces of your life sort of fall by the wayside. And we believe we should do our best to minimize that in any way we can,” Dr. Flesch said. “Obviously there are many things that we can’t help as an institution because you can’t be home, you can’t be with family, you’re missing work and events. But this is something a lot of people find to be an important part of their identity — the ability to have their right to vote and have their voice heard in our democracy — and it’s something historically I think has fallen to the wayside, especially in our state and those with similarly complex laws for the voting process.”

On election day in 2016, four volunteers, including the medical student, her resident, and Dr. Flesch, went around to as many patients as they could, asking if they would like to cast a vote.

“The process itself is very complicated,” Dr. Flesch said. “You have to fill out an application for a

‘last minute’ emergency absentee ballot that requires the certification of a physician and must be notarized and approved by an election judge.”

This meant that the volunteers had to make many trips to and from City Hall in that one day. Although it was a rushed and chaotic process, all of the applications they submitted that day were approved.

“We decided after the 2016 election that we wanted to try to do this in a more formalized way so that more patients would have the opportunity and it wouldn’t be such a crazy, last-minute rush,” Dr. Flesch said.

They partnered with the University of Penn Law School, as students and professors there had a better understanding of election law, and together created a more formal process. What started as a group of four volunteers will now be comprised of more than 100 volunteer and non-volunteer participants for the upcoming midterm election.

“Our team includes medical and nursing student volunteers who provide the patients with the application and answer questions as they fill it out, physicians who do the certification aspect, notaries who handle the notarizations, and law student volunteers that transport the applications and ballots to and from City Hall,” Dr. Flesch said. “We have this large volunteer force that expands the initiative for more patients to utilize.”

This year, the Presby Votes initiative is expanding with the addition of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a much bigger hospital. With this expansion, Presby Votes changed its name to the Penn Votes Project. In recent years, the Penn Votes Project has only been able to provide this full-service program for Philadelphia County voters.

“This year, we are going to offer the service to any Pennsylvania voters, to help them get the application itself filled out and appropriately signed and certified, and then give them information on how they can designate a family member or friend to take it to whatever non-Philadelphia county they live in Pennsylvania,” Dr. Flesch said. “By doing so, we’re expanding the number of patients that will be able to benefit from this.”