As the needle moves past 220,000 deaths from Covid-19 and the Supreme Court prepares to hear California v. Texas, which threatens to eliminate health insurance for almost 20 million Americans, it’s no surprise that health care remains one of the top issues for voters this election.
Historically, doctors vote less than other professionals. From 2006 to 2018, doctors were less likely to vote than the general public, particularly if they were not already registered to vote.
That’s what we found in a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. After reviewing voting histories for more than 100,000 doctors in California, New York, and Texas, we found that 37% of eligible physicians voted in elections over the last decade, compared to 51% of the general population. Half of doctors who were eligible to vote were not registered to vote in the first place.
While this is troubling, it can be fixed. Programs like Vot-ER and VoteHealth 2020 are working to help doctors register to vote around the country. Some hospitals are also stepping up to the plate. These efforts are important, because we found that doctors who were registered to vote are more likely to show up to the polls than their fellow Americans.
It would help if registering to vote was a simple and secure process. Eleven states, including our home state of Texas, do not permit online voter registration and instead require voters to mail in a physical form. And the majority of states do not allow voters to register and vote on the same day.
These rules, meant to suppress voting, make it challenging for doctors to maintain civic engagement over a decadelong professional training process. In a survey we published this week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, we found that a majority of doctors in training — residents — cite long work hours as the most common barrier to voting in this election. Nearly one-quarter of doctors felt that their vote does not make much of an impact, and a smaller group were hindered by not knowing when and where to vote. This is the first study of its kind to analyze barriers to voting for the U.S.’s youngest physicians.
Hospital training programs can do more to facilitate voter engagement among doctors by giving them paid time off to vote early, helping them register to vote by mail where permitted, and even arranging for voting at the hospital. More than 1,600 companies have already joined the Time To Vote campaign, giving employees time off to make their voices heard at the ballot box. Some companies, such as Old Navy, Target, and Warby Parker, are even paying employees to serve as poll workers.
It’s time for hospitals and residency programs to address the culture of prioritizing working over voting, particularly among young doctors. They can help doctors easily register to vote and provide them with information about early voting or how to request absentee ballots. For doctors living in California, Colorado, Maryland, and 16 other states and the District of Columbia, there’s still time to register to vote.
Institutions and programs interested in making community engagement and advocacy more visible to their physician trainees should consider making these small investments in the fundamental form of civic engagement. Especially as doctors are at the front lines of the current pandemic, we need doctors to express their voice now more than ever.
Hussain Lalani is an internal medicine resident physician and public health advocate in Dallas. Rija Siddiqui is a pediatrician and psychiatry resident in Dallas. Arthur Hong is an internist in Dallas.