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Exercising Their Right to Vote--From Hospital Beds

November 07, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mildred Burks' brain tumor upset her equilibrium and left one side of her body weakened. But one thing the tumor didn't affect was her political will.

Today is election day, and as in every presidential election since 1960, she is going to vote. Only this time, she's doing it from her hospital bed at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood.

"If you don't vote, you don't get to complain," said Burks, 63, who underwent brain surgery three weeks ago for the small tumor on the right side of her brain. "I never miss an election."

Burks is one of scores of patients at Daniel Freeman and among the thousands countywide who unexpectedly find themselves hospitalized and unable to get to the polls. To assist these patients, who are bedridden for anything from childbirth to heart attacks, Los Angeles-area hospitals bring the ballots to the infirm.

The process of distributing and collecting absent voter ballots from patients on election day can seem as harried as a shift in a busy emergency room.

First, volunteers track down all patients who are eligible and want to vote, including those admitted the morning of the election. Next, the ballots must be delivered to the patients--some of whom are unable to read or to punch the proper holes for voting because of their medical conditions. For these patients, volunteers must often read the entire ballot. That can take up to an hour, in part because of the complicated ballot measures.

"The patients want to vote on everything,"said Bonnie Rohrbaugh, director of volunteer services at Daniel Freeman, where about 10 volunteers will be helping out on the voting this year. "We usually end up turning over the ballots to the registrar's office at about 2 minutes before 8 p.m. [when polls close]."

"It gets pretty hectic, but it's exciting for everyone," added Rohrbaugh, who expects about 100 Freeman patients to participate. "I think it helps the patients' morale, too, to still be part of the election."

Joyce Williams says she isn't going to let the spinal cord surgery she had in September stop her from casting a ballot. As a precinct volunteer for more than a decade, she is familiar with the hospital practice of helping patients vote.

"I was pretty disappointed when I wouldn't be able to work at my polling place this year," said the 54-year-old Los Angeles resident who isn't sure when she'll be discharged from the hospital. "But at least I still get to send a message."

Like many patients confined to their beds, Williams keeps a close watch on televised election coverage. "I usually watch it all night or until it starts making me sleepy," she said.

Thomas Dill is also looking forward to participating in the election. He's voted in every presidential sweepstakes since 1948, when he did his part to help Harry Truman remain in the White House. Dill, who is recovering from a stroke, has been carefully poring over his voter information pamphlet. "I'm a citizen and this is my privilege," said Dill, 79, of Los Angeles.

Dill said he actually made up his mind in the presidential race months ago, but he wouldn't disclose his choice. Even from a hospital bed, he smiled, "it's a secret ballot."

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