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Absentee but Not Forgotten, Patients Get Bedside Ballots


Consider it a polling place with bedpans as well as ballots.

Hospital patients around Ventura County won't have to give up the opportunity to cast ballots today, as volunteers provide a veritable voter courier service for women in labor, emergency surgery patients and others who can't get to their regular polling places.

In the week before each election--and even on election day--absentee ballots are available for the bedridden, as long as they sign a permission slip provided by the county's election services, said Janna Valenzuela, who has overseen the county's absentee ballots for the last 15 years.

The patients get a ballot--usually delivered by hospital volunteers--that is correct down to school district and city council races, exactly as if they were in their own precincts.

And they can proceed to vote with their feet up, so to speak.

Some people have never missed an election and get anxious if they're in the hospital, Valenzuela said. They don't want to let a hospital stay ruin their streak.

"They're so happy to be able to do this, so in a way it's a really healthy thing," she said.

With 2000 being a general election year, Valenzuela expects several hundred absentee ballots to pour in from county hospitals--far more than in an off-year election.

And the hospitals do what they can to ensure that all registered voters can exercise their right to vote.

Intrepid volunteers--pink ladies and candy stripers--will, if need be, grab that all-important signature in between IV changes, during a blood-pressure check or from a rolling gurney on the way to the operating room.

Keeping their opinions on Measure O, Bush and Gore to themselves, they just help patients vote.

"It's kind of awkward to be asked to vote in between labor pains," joked Lucille Williams, a member of the auxiliary volunteers at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, after getting a signature Monday from a woman who was indeed in labor.

Williams and half a dozen other volunteers at St. John's fanned out over the 230-bed hospital Monday morning, armed with lists of patients expected to still be in-house on election day. Some on the list turned out not to be registered voters and others were too young, but a handful of patients on each floor eagerly signed to have a ballot delivered.

"It beats not taking the opportunity to vote," said 61-year-old Bruce Kihn of Oxnard, who was being treated for pneumonia. "I can't [complain] about those clowns unless I voted against them."

Kihn declined to say which clowns he was referring to.

At the elections division at the County Government Center, volunteers from hospitals across the county brought the signature forms to be exchanged for ballots.

It takes Valenzuela and her team about 40 minutes per hospital to check each batch of slips, make sure all the patients are registered voters, get each patient's correct ballot and hand the volunteers their ballots to take back.

"We're inundated on Monday," Valenzuela said. "We have people in line out the door here and down the hall."

Patients are usually thrilled to be able to cast their ballots, although some need the help of volunteers and friends to mark them.

At Ojai Valley Community Hospital's Continuing Care Center, 103-year-old Esther Edmonds got some help from friend Susan Golbuff, who drove up from Ventura.

Edmonds, who first registered to vote in 1923, remembers the day women first got the vote (she was in New York on a vaudeville stage at the time), that President Woodrow Wilson looked sharp in a top hat and that she liked Harry Truman's no-nonsense attitude.

She didn't like him enough to vote for him, though--in fact, she didn't vote for any of the presidential candidates that year, she said.

So which presidential candidates got the bedside vote? The race is still too close to call, although Edmonds said--after a long pause to remember--that she voted for Bush.

"I thought I'll give the boy a chance," she said.

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