Emergency absentee ballots available for hospital patients to vote

November 30, 2018

There’s never a good time to land in the hospital. But with Election Day looming, Friday was an especially bad time for Charles Rattigan.

Concerned about his “kids, grandkids and the country,” the 75 year old from Hempfield Township wasn’t about to let an unexpected hospital stay keep him from casting his vote.

“All these people have died to vote,” Rattigan said. “Here I am in bed. Why can’t I do something?”

With an eye on the state gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in Tuesday’s election, Rattigan started to do some research from his hospital bed at Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg. It took a few phone calls, but by Monday morning he had started the process for obtaining an emergency absentee ballot. Hours later, his ballot was submitted.

“I couldn’t take the situation laying down,” he said.

Pennsylvania voters can request an emergency absentee ballot if they encounter an unexpected illness or disability just before Election Day, according to information provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State. After completing an application, which includes a signature from a physician, the form must be notarized and submitted to the county election office. If it’s a last-minute application, it must be reviewed by a judge.

Once the application is approved, the patient gets a ballot. Emergency absentee ballots must be submitted by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

“I thought I was going to have a lot of problems,” Rattigan said.

The process turned out to be more manageable than he expected -- the county board of elections sent people to assist him and to ferry his documents back and forth, Rattigan said -- but he was ready to put up a fight.

“I wanted to make sure,” he said. “This only happens every two years.”

Rattigan grew up in Kittanning but has lived in Hempfield for over 40 years. His family, Irish and Italian immigrants, settled in Western Pennsylvania generations ago: Rattigan said he has a great uncle who died fighting in the Civil War and an uncle who served in World War I. His father was a World War II medic.

Rattigan went on to serve in Air Force communications during the Vietnam War, work in management for the Federal Black Lung Program and to raise a family -- he has a wife and four kids. He said he wants to make sure other people have the same opportunities he did, especially when it comes to immigration.

“Back then, it was turmoil, social unrest,” Rattigan said, thinking back to the 1960s. “Now, it seems like people are accepting what’s going on.”

That frightens him, he said. But it was also motivation to vote.

Patients at Excela Westmoreland Hospital must initiate the emergency absentee ballot process themselves, according to Robin Jennings, spokesperson for Excela Health. As an organization, Excela Health does not interfere with the voting process or encourage a certain political perspective, she said. A social worker could help a patient locate resources for voting from the hospital.

Voters registered in Allegheny County staying at UPMC hospitals this week will be assisted by the organization Ballots for Patients, according to Kevin Urda, director of volunteer and community services for UPMC.

The non-partisan volunteer organization has assisted UPMC patients in previous elections, Urda said. Hospital staff has been collecting patient names since Friday, and flyers were included on dinner trays Monday. They hope to have identified all patients interested in voting by 9 a.m. Tuesday.

“I feel like people are very enthusiastic about it, and glad that they’re empowered to vote,” Urda said.

Not all Pennsylvanians have as much luck navigating the process, said Dr. Judd Flesch, a pulmonary specialist at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia and founder of the Penn Votes Project.

He works with a team of about 100 volunteers--physicians, nurses, law students, medical students, notaries public--who help patients at Penn Presbyterian and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to navigate the complex process of obtaining an emergency absentee ballot.

Since the project was founded in 2016, they’ve assisted patients over four elections.

“This is a vulnerable population who shouldn’t be forced to give up one of their most important rights just because they’re ill,” Flesch said.

Some patients struggle to locate, download and complete the application, which requires information like voting district and ward numbers, he said. Others don’t have friends or family to assist them with ferrying paperwork back and forth from the hospital to election bureaus or courts, while many don’t realize that they have the opportunity to vote.

“Finding the information was a huge thing,” said Dr. Kelly Wong, an emergency medicine resident at the Brown University Albert Medical School in Rhode Island and founder of the website PatientVoting.com, which houses voting information from all 50 states.

Her goal is to make this information easy to find and understand -- an issue she said is about equity in healthcare.

“I’d like to start highlighting those states where the process seems a little more of a barrier,” she said.

In Texas, for example, figuring out how to vote from outer space was easy.

“But it took me longer to find how to vote from the hospital,” Wong said.

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