Health Center Voter Registration Hurdles, Perseverance, and Success

This blog post is part of a series sharing voter registration and civic engagement tips and ideas from health center advocates. If your health center is offering voter registration and you would like to write a guest blog post, email your post to

Guest blog post by Laura Dempsey-Polan, PhD, Chief of Community & Systems Development for Morton Comprehensive Health Services, located in Tulsa, OK

Health Center Voter Registration Hurdles, Perseverance, and Success

Thanks to NACHC’s and Morton Comprehensive Health Services’ (MCHS) leadership, a re-introduction to an important part of each Federally Qualified Health Center’s (FQHC) mission brought voter registration into action in this NE Oklahoma Community Health Center system.

To respond, MCHS, a longstanding FQHC in Tulsa, Oklahoma formed a small internal committee to explore how to promote advocacy and voter registration. Our Committee began meeting last summer to explore how to effectively encourage patients, staff and community members to register to vote. Our new committee was developed by interested staff members who came forward after an All Staff meeting announcement about our mission-driven intention.

We thought that the initial Committee plan was simple: (1) register staff members after meetings, (2) work at external events to register citizens, and (3) explore feasible ways to register patients, along with (4) encouraging area registration in collaboration with natural partners.

However, we immediately ran into a few hurdles:

• Staff were reluctant to register on-the-job due to privacy issues–our first attempt after an All Staff meeting was essentially a flop;

• A first and large outreach event brought only 8 registrations as we sat at our table;

• Staff/labor to register patients and citizens became a challenge due to staff duties; and,

• Effective times for registration were difficult to find.

Perseverance and humor, along with creative Committee member ideas, helped our Committee brainstorm renewed action:

• First, staff who were already involved in organizations which register voters outside MCHS brought helpful information to the table, e.g., simple voter registration information on how to train people helping others register, knowledge of volunteer organizations who might be interested in joining forces with MCHS’ effort, ideas on how to approach staff, etc.

• The timing of the NACHC awareness week in August, National Health Center Week 2012 (NHCW), brought an immediate on-site event to us to test better ways to register voters more successfully and with our collaborators. At our Health Festival, we managed to sign up 50 new registrations, even as we held the “hottest” event in the nation! (over 110 degrees!);

• Our invitations to create a community committee with area partners proved to be the most beneficial action, bringing motivated volunteers to MCHS. These generous volunteers now help us actively recruit both staff and patients to register at our largest center and at outreach events once a week; and,

• With the help of MCHS’ WIC Director, we realized that MCHS’ on-site WIC program also has a mandate to register voters, which helped promote a bit more attention to an additional venue for registering patients.

In short, successful steps leading to the registration of 383 new voters over the past 2 months include:

• Inviting and sincerely welcoming two area Leagues (the Tulsa Metro Urban League and the League of Women Voters of Tulsa) and several area sororities with one civic organization (the LINKs, inc.) to MCHS to help register voters on the busiest day of the week, Thursdays, from 1pm to 7pm. These active volunteers help MCHS register patients, staff and citizens;

• Informing staff of the volunteers on-site for registration has alleviated concerns about privacy and provides a place to register at their convenience;

• Working with our Committee and generous volunteers on how to register at events, e.g., at MCHS’ NHCW festival, we also made sure the Election Board brought a mock voting machine to both inform the election board of our work and to also encourage families and their children to learn how to use a voting machine—because this was something fun to do, we definitely saw more registrations as people used this machine.

• We also developed an organized schedule for volunteers, and we now use clipboard to work the crowds and this is a helpful technique;

• We have realized that ongoing communications to our Committee, even when it has proven difficult to meet, is important to review updates, including requests in the community to register senior centers, discussions about working with the press in a collaborative press release (no progress yet, but still exploring!), sharing information about early voting for area groups requesting assistance, and looking for possible ways to utilize MCHS’ transportation to help voters actually vote; and,

• Finally, we also lightly decorated our front area to welcome volunteers and registrants, we take pictures of the volunteers, and also we thank our front desk area and particularly one guard (Tony) who are now excited about encouraging patients, staff and area citizens to vote.

We are looking forward to 2 more Thursdays to register voters and we appreciate any advice on moving forward, sustaining this effort, working on advocacy for the organization, etc.

–Laura Dempsey-Polan, PhD


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