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There’s a new place to register to vote in Chicago: the ER

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/22/2020 By Lisa Schencker, Chicago Tribune
a man standing in front of a building: Dr. Daria Terrell at St. Bernard Hospital on Sept. 22, 2020. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Dr. Daria Terrell at St. Bernard Hospital on Sept. 22, 2020.

The effort to register as many voters as possible for the November election has expanded into a new, unlikely front: hospital emergency departments.

Doctors in at least a handful of Chicago hospitals — including Stroger, Rush, University of Illinois, and St. Bernard hospitals — are taking part in a nationwide initiative called VotER, in which physicians are helping patients start the voter registration process at appointments and emergency visits.

The doctors and other medical providers wear lanyards around their necks with badges that say “Ready to Vote?” and the badges contain a QR code. Patients can use their phones to scan the QR code, which will then take them to turbovote.org, a website that guides them through the voter registration process.

More than 130 hospitals nationwide are taking part in the project and similar initiatives, according to VotER, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. In Illinois, people may go online to register to vote through Oct. 18, may register by mail by Oct. 6, and may register in-person at various locations through Election Day.

a person wearing a suit and tie: Dr. Daria Terrell at St. Bernard Hospital on Sept. 22, 2020. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Dr. Daria Terrell at St. Bernard Hospital on Sept. 22, 2020.

“We know that our patients often feel left out of the decisions that affect them,” said Dr. Shane Borkowsky, an internal medicine physician at University of Illinois Hospital and Health Science System, which sits on the West Side of Chicago. “This is a way to create a bridge for them to register to vote.”

Doctors interested in participating will get the badges in coming days, Borkowsky said. They’ll be encouraged to talk to patients while they’re waiting or not too busy.

No one will be urged to start on voter registration while they’re in the throes a medical crisis, she said.

“The idea is to get patients when there’s not much going on, so you’re not taking away from their health care,” she said. “You’re just giving them the opportunity to use that wait time to do something.”

Doctors say it’s an especially important initiative at hospitals that serve many low-income patients, such as Stroger. About one-third of Stroger’s ER doctors are wearing the lanyards, said Dr. Rashid Kysia, an emergency medicine physician at Cook County Health, which is working to expand the program to Provident Hospital.

In the first week that Stroger doctors wore the badges, about 30 patients participated, he said.

“Our patient population is poor, and they’re disproportionately affected by issues that often they’re not voting for,” he said. “People in Chicago deserve a voice, and particularly our patients because they’re some of the most unheard voices in the city.”

Dr. Daria Terrell, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Bernard Hospital in Englewood, started wearing her badge about a month ago. She said a doctor in psychiatry and a nurse practitioner at the hospital are also wearing them.

“I bring the topic up sometimes as a part of taking a social history,” Terrell said. “Do you smoke? Do you drink? Are you registered to vote?”

It’s also been an opportunity, she said, to help clear up misconceptions about voting. When she recently asked one patient if he was registered to vote, he said he wasn’t because he had been previously incarcerated. She told him that he could still register to vote and helped him do so.

She saw another patient Monday who asked her which candidate he should support. The Internal Revenue Service prohibits charitable organizations from advocating for one candidate or another, though they may encourage voter and civic engagement in a nonpartisan way.

“I told him, ‘I can’t tell you who to vote for,’” Terrell said. "I told him, ‘You have to think about what issues are important to you. Who do you think has your interests?’”

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©2020 the Chicago Tribune

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