What Are We Voting For?

Groups like Rock the Vote and VotER have worked hard to rekindle America’s passion for democracy, but there’s a clear and persistent gap between those who believe their vote will matter and those who do not. On September 17, Alberto Cifuentes Jr, LMSW facilitated a Virtual Anti-Racism Summit panel where he invited two University of Connecticut social work students to share their journeys from apathy to activism.

These panelists’ stories mirrored those of many Americans – young, POC, disabled, poor, or those with other marginalized identities – who doubt the impact of casting a ballot. The session was an opportunity to explore both sides of the issue, to unpack the complicated subject of American democracy and the stigma that is applied to those who lack faith in it. Yes, democracy only works if enough of us show up, but each individual faces a very different journey to get here.

Those in favor of voting usually frame it as a matter of exercising one’s civil rights. To vote means to place your trust in an elected official who you believe will best represent the causes and protect the rights you hold most dear. Participating in elections, especially local and state ones, has an impact on education, healthcare, housing, mental health services, immigration, emergency services, policing, and human rights as a whole. This is not idealism; when democracy is working at its very best, power can be used to protect and empower our people.

Aside from the obvious benefits of voting, there is the flip side – not voting can have huge consequences. Voter burn-out and indifference give strength to the opposing party or contested policy and create division among people who have similar ideals and politics but varying levels of trust or mistrust in the system. This is why die-hard politicos criticize write-in voters, who cast their ballot for an official not formally in the running (such as someone who dropped out earlier in the race). The rationale is often something like, “not voting for Candidate A equals a vote for Candidate B.” Though the efficacy of write-in voting has been debated, it is a valid option in many states and it presents a way for disenchanted voters to make their voices heard even if they don’t want to support the nominees on the ballot.

That active voters are overwhelmingly White, moderate- to upper-income, highly educated, and stably employed tells us a lot about who benefits from our current political system. Despite having multiple options for voters, including mail-in and absentee ballots, early voting, and election day voting, none of these choices are without pitfalls. Mail-in ballots create access for voters with mobility issues or who are medically at-risk and can’t show up to crowded spaces in person, but officials have been struggling for decades to deal with widespread ballot rejection and misplacement. This is a huge concern for swing states in particular.

Early voting helps those who can vote in person but aren’t sure they’ll be able to get to the polls on election day. However, if one casts their ballot early in a primary election for a candidate who then withdraws (the Democratic primaries this summer had 15) after they vote, they don’t get a second chance. Absentee ballots are also a useful tool for younger voters who are away at college – a population that tends to swing liberal – but postmark rules are strict and many voters won’t receive a ballot by election day. Unless a voter is affluent, healthy, has childcare, transportation, and/or a consistent work schedule, a lot could come between them and the ballot box. And, at the end of the day, the electoral college still serves to steamroll the popular vote, a policy we have yet to get rid of.

Flaws aside, the importance of voting in our current political situation is undeniable, but the U.S. voting system also disregards the hundreds of years of subjugation and disenfranchisement that have become embedded in many Americans’ lives, heightened by judgment and stigma. Pro-voting advocates argue that democracy is what sets us apart from less civilized societies. This is the type of paternalistic, “us versus them” thinking that leads to victim-blaming.

Experiencing voting as an act of empowerment is a privilege not all of us will enjoy. After hitting one barrier after another, from the terrorism of the Jim Crow south to today’s covert racist and classist policies, we should be able to understand when those who’ve faced suppression begin to shut down and turn away from the democratic process. This is so common that it has actually earned its own name: psychological voter suppression. Practices like roll purging, felony voting laws, ID requirements, misinformation, reducing poll locations, manipulated district lines, and harassment are all responsible for the downtick in voter morale and participation. Before we attack eligible voters for not turning out to the polls, let’s reflect on the reasons for their ambivalence and attend to those root causes. If a person votes for their chosen party their entire adult life and never sees the kinds of meaningful change that will assure their and their community’s safety and future, what are they really voting for?

So what can be done to increase voter turnout and reduce barriers? A few things:

Vote. If you’re able to vote without sacrificing your physical, financial, or emotional safety, do it! Register before your state’s deadline (usually 10 days prior to the election) – vote.org offers a state by state list of deadlines. You can check your voter registration status, look up early voting dates, and register for a mail-in or absentee ballot here through your state’s election office.

Assist. If you’re registered to vote in your state and want to go in person, coordinate your election day travel plans with other voters in your household and neighborhood. Round up others like you with privilege and access and encourage them to do the same. Companies like Lyft and Uber are offering discounted rides to the polls; community-based groups like RideShare2Vote are booming; and your local AARP office, doctor’s office, place of worship, or City Hall can help too. 

Empathize. Practice humility, and accept that your lived experience is not the same as others. Don’t make assumptions about who is able to vote. Don’t shame or blame people from marginalized communities who can vote and choose not to. Trust that they’re doing what they need to survive in an oppressive world, and that healing has to come first. Cast your ballot for officials (especially in local and state elections) whose policies will advance the good of the whole, not the few. 

Organize. Canvassing and joining phone banks are a couple of ways to spread the word about candidates you believe in. Hone in on efforts like prison abolition, refugee rights, or labor protections for non-traditional workers. Felony disenfranchisement laws, for example, mean that in 2016, over six million Americans (the vast majority Black) could not vote because of their legal status. Understand that anti-oppression work improves democracy. Be willing to relinquish a little of your privilege so that others can possess more agency in their own lives. 

Finally, if you have ever felt reluctant to turn out for an election because you lack faith in the outcome or don’t see your identities represented in the candidates, run for office and bring the changes you know are needed. The system is working exactly as designed – it’s up to the people to change it. 

More Social Workers Needed for Political Action

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It is time for social workers to begin to flex our political muscles because not much will change in the pursuit of social justice. Until there are more people in the political arena fighting for a more just and equitable society, opportunities for everyone willing to put in the effort will not become a reality.

Many of the politicians in office at all levels of government need to be retired. They need to be voted out of office, but until more people are energized to go to the polls, too many corrupt and selfish politicians will remain in office to the detriment of society. As many social workers as possible are needed to replace these unfit elected officials in office while other social workers are needed to mobilize voters and manage campaigns to elect new leaders, change unjust laws and policies, and get government working for the people and not just the few. It’s been repeated so often, it is now a cliché.

Political activism is not for the faint of heart. It sometimes takes all of the toleration for sleaze one can muster to roll up your sleeves and dive headlong into political campaigns. Attacks on candidates are considered necessary strategy if you want to win an election. Charges and accusations against your opponent do not necessarily have to be true if you can make some of the mud stick, so there is much innuendo, conspiracy theories, and circumstantial hypotheticals. These tactics are designed to discourage voters from even wanting to participate in the process—to become jaded and lose all interest in political participation and leave elections to the cutthroats and ethically challenged. These scenarios are extreme but political warfare can get pretty ugly.

It is important that people of conscience, people for whom a more just and egalitarian society are sincere goals, stay involved in political struggles because politics may just be the last frontier in the fight for social justice. Human institutions are invariably susceptible to corruption—from religion to politics and everywhere in between. Politics attracts more corruption because of the power and resources that often come with holding elected office.

New accounts of political corruption seem to break daily. Someone gets caught trying to redirect government funds into the bank accounts of friends or those they are trying to bribe. Or exploiting or creating loopholes in the law that will allow some or all of their campaign funds to find their way into their personal bank accounts.

Not everyone in political office is there for personal gain. The majority of people who seek office do so hoping to better the lives of the people they represent. Many work diligently to resist and escape temptations that would invite their baser instincts to rule. Many do resist although some may succumb to minor indiscretions like breaking franking rules—mailing more items than the rules allow.

Political systems that function on money transfers are ripe for corruption. The more money, the greater the temptation, the greater opportunity and the more likely corruption will occur which is why the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United should go down in history as one of the most undemocratic actions ever perpetrated. Until the influence of money is reduced, politics will attract the corruptible.

So why should social workers want to wade into the cesspool of political warfare? It is a necessary undertaking. Social workers are equipped with skills and knowledge that will work against all the corrupting influence in politics. Social workers are guided by a code of ethics that challenges us to do the right thing by our clients, our colleagues, and society at large. Social workers are not perfect and social workers do break rules but we are not inherently rule breakers. More social workers in politics would reduce corruption.

Getting more social workers involved in politics is not the panacea to what ails America. But it’s a start. Social workers are empowering individuals, families and communities. Social workers are doing quality research and focusing more on making that research relevant to policy discussions but the political system is a mess and some effort must be put into restoring integrity in government. As long as money is the primary language spoken in the halls of government the lines between quid pro quo will continued to be blurred.

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