Health & Medicine

At some hospitals, patients get their ballots hand-delivered

It may be the only way to vote from bed.

On Election Day, many voters will head to their neighborhood polling place or have already mailed in their absentee ballot. But what if you’re stuck in the hospital, say, from a medical emergency or the birth of a baby?

No worries. In some California hospitals on Tuesday, ballots will be hand-delivered to the patient’s bedside.

Rhoda Kitchen, who’s been in Sutter Medical Center’s critical-care unit in Sacramento for nearly a week, went from glum to ecstatic when told Monday she could vote after all.

“I’m so happy about that,” exclaimed Kitchen, 41, who is recovering after collapsing from a pulmonary embolism on Nov. 3. “I thought I wasn’t going to be able to vote at all.” Given this year’s presidential choice “between a woman electee and a celebrity,” Kitchen said, she wanted her vote to count.

In the final hours leading up to Tuesday’s contentious presidential election, hospitals are one of the last-minute frontiers for absentee voters.

State officials don’t tally how many ballots are cast by hospitalized patients, but they’re clearly a tiny sliver of the larger chunk of voters using absentee ballots. In the June 7 presidential primary, roughly 59 percent of 8.5 million California voters used vote-by-mail ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Under state election laws, any voter who missed the absentee ballot deadline but cannot get to the polls “because of illness or disability” can make a signed, written request for an absentee ballot. That request can be delivered by someone they designate, such as a family member or hospital staffer, to the county elections office where they’re registered to vote.

“California voters have the right to get help casting their ballot from anyone they choose, except their employer or union representative,” said Secretary of State spokesman Sam Mahood, in an email. He did not have estimates of how many hospitalized voters cast ballots in any election.

In Placer County, elections officials have teamed up with hospitals such as Sutter Roseville for about 20 years to make sure every hospitalized voter who wants to cast an absentee ballot can do so.

“In smaller elections, when it’s more about (ballot) propositions, we only get up to six people” requesting a bedside ballot, said Susan Rutledge, director of nursing education and auxiliary services at Sutter Roseville. “But in a presidential election, we get more,” maybe 15 to 20. “And this one, there will probably will be even more.” Just in case, Rutledge said she has 100 ballot-request forms on hand.

Similar get-out-the-vote efforts are made for those behind bars. Any Californian in jail for a misdemeanor conviction or awaiting trial is eligible to vote, as long as they’ve requested an absentee ballot ahead of time. Those who cannot vote: individuals incarcerated or on parole for a felony conviction.

Sgt. Tony Turnbull, spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said inmates at the downtown main jail and at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center were offered voter applications weeks ago – in English, Spanish, Mandarin and other languages. Those who wanted to vote filled out applications, which were processed by county election officials. Those deemed eligible were given vote-by-mail ballots, which were completed and returned to election offices several weeks ago.

“We have such a robust vote-by-mail program in California, but there are still situations where you’re unexpectedly unable to get to the polls,” said Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County assistant registrar of voters. “California does a wonderful job empowering voters and providing opportunities to vote.”

In Placer County, election officials employ “runners,” regular staffers who will deliver ballots to hospital rooms upon request, according to elections supervisor Sam Kipp. Patients, who must already be registered to vote in Placer County, can fill out a ballot request at three hospitals: Kaiser Permanente Roseville, Sutter Roseville and Sutter Auburn Faith hospitals.

“If (hospital officials) fax us a request by 12 noon (Election Day), we’ll send a designated runner to the hospital to help,” Kipp said. “We just want to make sure that we give every opportunity to voters out there.”

Sammy Caiola contributed to this report.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck