During the Nov. 2020 general and Jan. 2021 statewide runoff elections, the hallways of our health systems buzzed with promise and a sense of civic duty. Among the usual list of questions we asked our patients —How are you feeling? What medications are you taking? — we began discussing something new in our repertoire: Have you registered to vote?
That question sparked others from patients: How do we register? Is it safe to vote in person? How do we request absentee ballots? In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the accessibility of absentee ballots and early voting was a relief for healthcare workers and patients alike.
In the midst of a global pandemic framed by grief and despair, our healthcare community and our patients chose to invest in our democratic system and empower ourselves through the act of voting. Georgians voted at record-breaking numbers, proving that our voices matter and that we want a stake in our country’s future. What we witnessed during this time period was the excitement and engagement of democracy at its best. It proved that when we increase voting accessibility, more people engage in politics and, most importantly, vote.
But we know something else: The hurdles that Georgians historically must clear to vote are often the same ones that prevent them from coming to clinic visits. Many, especially essential workers, work long hours and cannot request or afford to take time off. Transportation availability, time, and cost are all huge barriers to seeking healthcare, and are also huge barriers to voting. Our citizens and patients also face the technological complexities of a system that is not user-friendly.
We are disheartened to see the dozens of legislative proposals that seek to end no-excuse absentee ballots, curtail early voting, and generally make it more difficult for Georgians to cast their ballots. In particular, SB 241 would restrict no-excuse absentee ballot requests with an exception for individuals with disabilities, and HB 531 would restrict absentee ballot requests in the days leading up to the election to only those who were hospitalized. This not only burdens our patients, but also our healthcare system to provide this documentation.
During the 2020 general election, Georgia was one of 36 states that allowed no-excuse absentee voting — which, notably, was encouraged in conservative-leaning states like Florida, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Kansas, Idaho, Alaska, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Any proposed restrictions on absentee voting would only derail a system that works: In 2020, courts in Louisiana struck down “doctor’s note” requirements, equating it to a poll tax. Other states like Texas and Mississippi have unclear and unenforceable requirements of what constitutes a disability and what is required to prove one, which only serves to confuse and dissuade voters who otherwise would benefit from this voting option.
Let us be clear: as current and future healthcare professionals, we see firsthand that the health of our patients is a direct reflection of the policies of our state. We strive to think of ways to make physical and mental health maintenance easier for all our patients — we advocate for green space, access to healthy foods, safe walking areas, and health insurance. We call for telehealth, home visits, reduced co-pays, social services, and accessible transportation. We know that these issues disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities. By restricting absentee voting and voting more generally, the proposed bills would further codify racial inequities into policy.
Our experiences show that caring for our patients means caring about the policies that govern our state and country. They remind us that our patients deserve the opportunity to elect the lawmakers whose policies influence their lives. To place a barrier on their ability to vote on the very policies that affect the health of their communities — particularly during a pandemic — is unfathomable. This is why we believe that healthcare professionals must advocate for voting rights.
Given the resounding success of past initiatives to expand voting access as evident in the November and January elections, it is surprising that the Georgia General Assembly would now make open attempts to limit access to voting. We believe that — regardless of health status, income, race, individual beliefs, or access to transportation, education or health insurance — every Georgian deserves a voting system that is equitable and accessible to all citizens. We further believe that policies promoting voting access are ones that all Georgians, regardless of party-affiliation, should support. In addition to SB 241 and HB 531, we oppose SB 62, SB 67, SB 68, SB 69, SB 70, SB 72, SB 73, SB 74, SB 89, SB 93, and any other laws that restrict voting access. Along with healthcare professionals across the state, we have started a petition to ask Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and the Georgia General Assembly to oppose these bills, and any others that restrict voting.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
The views here are those of the authors and do not represent those of Emory University or Grady Health System.
Surabhi Beriwal is a first-year medical student at Emory University School of Medicine.
Rebecca Hong is a first-year medical student at Emory University School of Medicine.
Dr. Stacie Schmidt, M.D., is a primary care internist in Georgia and an associate professor of medicine.
Dr. Lauren Gensler, M.D., is a physician at Grady Memorial Hospital within both the internal medicine and psychiatry departments. She works in both emergency psychiatric services and inpatient internal medicine services.
Dr. Tracey L. Henry, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., is an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University and assistant health director in the Grady Primary Care Center.
Dr. Maura George, M.D., is an internist at Grady Memorial Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.
Dr. Erica Heiman, M.D., MSc., is an assistant professor of medicine in the department of medicine and division of general medicine and geriatrics at Grady Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Dylan Baker, MBBS, is a rising ambulatory chief resident in Emory University’s internal medicine residency program.