Empowering Communities at the Ballot Box: How to Increase Voter Participation

As an active participant in the civil rights movement, Mimi Abramovitz was thrilled when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. The landmark legislation expanded and protected the voting rights of communities of color, who had faced a number of barriers to exercising their civic right. But decades after that hard-fought victory, the new voter suppression tactics that have been cropping up in states all across the country have Abramovitz nervous.

“I think that voting rights is the lynchpin of democracy, and I’m very worried today that our democratic institutions are in jeopardy, if not in crisis,” she said.

Recognizing the need to engage more social workers in the democratic process, Abramovitz—a professor of social policy at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College-CUNY—helped launch the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign in 2018. The nonpartisan “Voting is Social Work” campaign aims to integrate voter engagement into social work education and teach voter mobilization skills in order to ensure that those served by social workers have access to vote.

“We encourage schools to motivate their constituencies to do voter registration, not only with faculty and students but to [also] train the field instructors to register clients because that’s where most of the suppressed voters are; that’s where most of the unregistered voters are,” Abramovitz said.

For Abramovitz, it’s about taking advantage of the unique position in which social workers are situated in their day to day—between the individual and society, helping to bring resources to meet the needs of underserved communities. She points out that neighborhoods or communities where there is higher voter turnout receive more attention and resources from legislators and politicians.

“Voting elevates the profession’s visibility and voice,” Abramovitz said. “If we get attention and can exercise that political power, we get programs and services that benefit our clients and also wider society.”

And for those who think non-partisan registration of clients is unprofessional or unethical, Abramovitz has a simple message.

“That’s just a myth,” she said. “It’s not about telling a client who to vote for.”

What Prevents People from Voting?

In a comprehensive survey of voter suppression in the 2018 midterm elections, the Center for American Progress highlighted nine voting suppression tactics that were taken to prevent people from voting.

  1. Voter registration problems: Many eligible voters have difficulty discerning when and where to register, as well as what materials are needed to register. Specific suppression tactics included requiring those registering within 30 days of an election to prove they live in the town they were voting. Another state placed registered voters in “pending status” because of minor misspellings on their registration forms.
  2. Voter purges: States removed voters from voter rolls if they hadn’t participated in the previous two elections and didn’t return a mailer.
  3. Strict voter ID and ballot requirements: A number of states require voters to present specific forms of government-issued ID in order to vote, despite the fact that more than 1 in 10 Americans lack those forms of identification. Some states also used discriminatory criteria when evaluating ballots and discarded ballots that had mismatched signatures to the signatures on file. 
  4. Voter confusion: Voters received communication with incorrect information about polling places and voting requirements.
  5. Voter intimidation: Racist and anti-Semitic robocalls and mailers where used on multiple occasions in 2018. Voters also reported numerous incidents of harassment at the polls.
  6. Poll closures and long lines: Relocating or closing specific polling places led to confusion and long lines, discouraging voters from participating in elections. Some voters lacked access to necessary transportation to in order to visit their polling places.
  7. Malfunctioning voting equipment: Machine malfunctions and errors as well as computer glitches occurred at a number of polling places, sometimes resulting in voters abandoning their votes or vote flipping.
  8. Disenfranchisement of justice-involved individuals: Laws preventing those involved in the justice system from voting affect millions of Americans. Although some states are taking action to give justice-involved individuals the right to vote, many of the actions are limited in scope. 
  9. Gerrymandering: Politicians draw maps to choose their own electorate, skewing representation, avoiding competition and preventing them from having to answer to their constituents.

In most of the cases, the survey indicates that these suppression tactics disproportionately target young voters, low-income voters and communities of color, including African American, Hispanic and Native American voters.

Abramovitz pointed out that these tactics are meant to build on and accelerate an existing culture in the United States centered on the idea that “voting doesn’t matter.”

“Voter suppression is designed to demoralize the voters and to make people think that their vote doesn’t count or that the system is rigged,” she explained. “But we know from recent elections, like the last national election, that a small number of votes can decide many elections. So that effort to lower voter turnout rates has major consequences.”

What Can People and Organizations Do to Empower Others to Vote?

To address the country’s “broken” and “vulnerable” democratic instructions, Abramovitz says people need to take action by registering voters and getting out the vote. 

“People fought long and hard, and many people, especially in the civil rights movement, gave up their lives for this right,” she said.

Voting is Social Work offers tips for social work professionals on how their agencies can make a difference (PDF, 431KB).

Individuals can also reach out to older, established organizations working on protecting voting rights, such as League of Women Voters, ACLU and NAACP, or other voter mobilization groups, such as Common Cause, Rock the Vote and HeadCount.

Those who want to encourage civic engagement and participation in their communities can also create voter information guides to ensure friends and neighbors have the information they need to register and cast their ballots.

Eight Questions to Answer in a Voter Information Guide

1

How can I check if I already am registered?

Anyone can check their voter registration status at Vote.org.

2

How can I to register to vote and find out the deadline to register?

Visit Vote.org to register online or use USA.gov’s state and local election site directory to find the address and phone number of your local election office. Your local election office can provide information on how to register in person and what the deadlines are.

3

How can I sign up for reminders?

Registered voters can sign up for text and email reminders at TurboVote.

4

How can I learn about incumbents and candidates running for office?

Attend talks or forums featuring candidates and contact their campaign offices to ask for information on their platform and position on important issues. See if non-partisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, have information sheets or brochures on the candidates and issues.

5

How can I find out what is on the ballot?

Find out what candidates and other questions may be on the ballot in your district by visiting Vote411, HeadCount or Ballotpedia. You can also get paper copies of ballots from your local election office, which you may find using USA.gov’s state and local election site directory.

6

How do I find out if I can do mail-in voting or if early voting is available?

Use the aforementioned USA.gov election site directory for a link to your state or local elections office. Contact them for information about mail-in ballots and early voting days and hours. You may also visit Rock the Vote for information on absentee ballots and early voting in your area.

7

Where do I find out the location of my polling place?

Check out this polling place locator from Vote.org or the Voting Information Tool from the Voting Information Project for help locating polling stations.

8

How can I get a ride to cast my ballot?

Visit websites Carpool Vote and Drive the Vote to see if they provide services in your area.  Use the Administration for Community Living’s Eldercare Locator to learn about transportation resources for older adults. Check Lyft and Uber apps for discounts. Ask friends and neighbors if they can share a ride.

Abramovitz reminds anyone working within the voting realm not to be discouraged by individual defeats or setbacks. Victory in an election isn’t necessary to create change.

Whether you win or lose, “if you can mobilize your constituents and get a thousand more people to vote, then you also can influence the outcome,” she said. 

Are you interested in addressing larger social problems and working at a policy level? Read our guide to macro social work and learn more about how to become a social worker.