Engaging Vulnerable Populations Where Its Needed Most With VotER

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, inequities within our healthcare system are on full display, and it further exposes how our most vulnerable are treated when seeking care. The disparities around who gets tested, access to testing, and whether they can even be seen by a health care provider are even more apparent during this crisis. Politicians, celebrities, and athletes are reporting access to testing while this is not the lived experienced of everyday Americans.

Even with the advancement of technology and an encouraged reliance on telehealth, these inequities in our health care system are the reflection of a country with barriers to civic engagement for its most vulnerable. We live in a country where 51 million potential voting-age adults are not registered to vote.

Disproportionately, those who are not registered to vote fall into one of three categories – the young, the poor, and those of color. For example, 36 percent of eligible African Americans and 48 percent of Hispanics were not registered to vote in the 2014 presidential election. And rates among young citizens are not much better; just 50% of millennials voted in the 2016 election, compared to 69% of Baby Boomers and 63% of Generation X.

It turns out that the same demographic groups that are not registered to vote also disproportionately utilize ERs at higher rates across the country for non-emergency care because they lack access to primary care. In other words, patients who are young, people of color, and have low income are frequently coming to the emergency room for non-life threatening conditions. 

Consider, the annual visit rate was 45.1 ED visits per 100 persons for the average patient in America. But when stratified among patients of color the visit rate was almost two times higher at 85 visits per 100. I’m an ER doctor and I see this phenomenon nearly every shift, but how do we empower our most vulnerable in order to create change?

Why not use the opportunity to register them to vote in the ER and in other health care settings where marginalized communities get their health care?

VotER Gets Patients Registered to Vote While They Wait

VotER is a new civic engagement organization that registers patients to vote in health care settings as described here in the Boston Globe. VotER was launched through a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital, TurboVote, and ideas42 and we build platforms that offer non-emergency patients a chance to register to vote in 90 seconds or less using a combination of iPad kiosks and behaviorally informed posters, stickers, and discharge paperwork while non-emergency patients wait in ERs and community health centers.

Our early pilots have resulted in significant demand from over 50 hospitals across the country in two months – and we are confident this model will lead to large increases in voter registration rates when paired with effective integration with engaged and social justice oriented staff like social workers in chosen health care settings. 

How We Work

iPad Based

VotER uses ipads contained in freestanding kiosks in areas where low acuity patients wait in the ED. The ipads are programmed to only allow voter registration. Above the ipads are large signs that invite voter registration. 

Patient Phone Based

We deploy posters in the ED that have a text to register feature which allows patients to text a ‘short code’ to a specific number which lets them register using their phone or use a QR code to initiate the same process.

Second, we have developed patient handouts that have embedded QR codes and URL links that connect patients to the same Turbovote voter registration platform. 

Social workers as innovators in civic engagement

Studies demonstrate that social workers participate in political activities more than other professions and vote at higher rates than the general population. Indeed the institution of The Human Service Employees Voter Registration and Education Campaign (Human SERVE) and the successful National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign (Voting is Social Work) demonstrate that the social work profession has always known that voter registration and voting support a robust democracy, a just society, and an equitable health care system.

Moreover, social workers have a long track record of success doing voter registration at rates higher than other traditional voter registration groups. During the 1984 election, for example, just 1% of those working with Human SERVE voter registration campaign registered 275,000 people nationally

At VotER, we know that for decades social work has been out in front doing the hard work of voter registration in health care settings — and the tide is now turning. Hospitals are now becoming engaged participants, and VotER is letting them do this in a way they’ve never been able to before.

We value the legacy of activism and empowerment among the field of social work and know that VotER needs input from social workers to blend our novel approach with on the ground tactics and real-world applications inspired by you. We also know that while VotER’s early pilots have resulted in demand and excitement from hospitals across the country, we need the input and insight of the field of social work to truly scale this effectively. 

We know that without participation from those most hurt by the healthcare system, politicians will continue to turn a blind eye to the needs of disenfranchised patients. Do you have ideas on how to partner effectively? Do you have suggestions on how social workers can use part, or all, of the VotER platform in the 2020 election and beyond? We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions here.

Call to Action and How You Can Help

We need your help and ingenuity to address this challenge — specifically, to explore how healthcare workers and spaces can support patients with voter registration via VotER. If you are interested in partnering with us, fill out this form to connect with us

Social Workers to Launch Voter Empowerment Campaign

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There are a growing number of social workers who believe our profession can play a significant role in restoring confidence in our nation’s political processes by encouraging more people to register and vote. In the August 2015 Gallup Poll, 72 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. They want change. Many lower and middle-income families have been feeling squeezed for years. So how does change occur?

Dēmos policy analyst Sean McElwee says more in the low- and middle-income class need to vote. In his report, Why Voting Matters, McElwee documents how lower-income voters’ failure to vote has resulted in policies that favor the well-to-do. He reported 26 million eligible voters of color and 47 million eligible voters earning less than $50,000 annually did not vote in 2012. In 2014, the numbers were 44 million and 66 million respectively.

Many social workers are realizing the critical need for more of us to be involved in political processes. Nancy A. Humphreys, past president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and former dean of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, has been preaching this message for decades. The Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work (NAHIPSW) at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next month and still going strong under the leadership of new director Tanya Rhodes Smith.

Although Dr. Humphreys retired recently, she has not abandoned her efforts to educate and organize social workers, social work students and faculty around the need to be more politically active. Her message is taking root and signs of increased activity are sprouting around the nation.

CRISP is joining forces with Influencing Social Policy’s outgoing chair, Kathy Byers, to launch a social work-led voter empowerment project designed to mobilize social workers to register, educate, and get voters to the polls so their voices will be included in deciding the direction of the country.

This nonpartisan campaign seeks to provide social workers with evidence-based information and tools necessary to effectively identify and engage nonvoters. Drawing on proven resources from successful voter registration and education projects such as the League of Women’s Voters, Emily’s List, Nonprofit Vote and Rock The Vote, this social work voter empowerment campaign will create and disseminate materials and toolkits designed specifically for social workers.

In addition, CRISP will soon formally announce the formation of a Student Advisory Council (SAC) that will focus on engaging millennial social workers in BSW, MSW, and PhD programs as well as recent graduates. CRISPSAC will focus on social entrepreneurship and using technology to advocate and influence policy. Led by Shauntia White, a second-year student at the School of Social Services at the National Catholic University of America, CRISPSAC, under the banner #YSocialWork, is recruiting representatives from schools across the country to be ambassadors and spread the message at their schools.

CRISPSAC communications coordinator Justin Vest, a recent grad from the University of Alabama School of Social Work, is spearheading an awareness campaign on Tuesday that will include a Twitter chat using the hashtags #CelebrateNVRD and #SWVote.

Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day, a day to remind Americans to take advantage of our precious right to vote—a right that has never been fully accessible to all citizens of the United States. Women fought for decades to win the right to vote in 1919. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down many of the barriers that denied African Americans access to the polls. The National Voters Registration Act of 1993 sought to ease access to voting.

Yet, less than 50 years after the VRA of 1965, key provisions of the legislation were eviscerated by the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Roadblocks such as unduly restrictive voter identification requirements, polling places with inadequate resources to meet demand, and laws that create barriers to student participation all work to limit participation in our democratic process.

More alarming are the vast numbers of Americans who choose not to exercise their right to vote. According to the U.S. Census, only 92.1 million (41.9%) of 220 million voting-age Americans voted in the 2014 elections, meaning 127 million people did not vote. Nearly 78 million voting age Americans were not registered. Voter participation rates are significantly higher in presidential elections—almost 62 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2012.

A defining event in the profession’s expanding political focus was the founding of the Congressional Social Work Caucus (CSWC) by former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns. It created a platform on the Hill for social workers and encouraged us to be more fully engaged with the federal government.

Now under the leadership of Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13), the CSWC continues to work in conjunction with social work schools and organizations. Plans are underway for a second Social Work Day on the Hill in March 2016. Empowering American voters is a critical function for which social workers are trained and equipped to be game changers.

Getting Social Workers Involved in Social Justice: Who Will Take the Lead

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If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re on the menu. This pithy bit of wisdom was offered as a reminder by University of Illinois Springfield social work professor David Stoesz in a discussion thread on a social work policy listserv about the profession’s paltry participation in policy and politics. Social workers on that listserv are concerned about our level of effort on social justice issues in order to bring about societal change as our code of ethics mandates. Helping people cope with policies that have disproportionately favored the wealthy over the past several decades is not enough.

However, we must do more to change those policies and create a more egalitarian society. Two interesting articles caught my attention last week. One that was posted on Social Work Helper’s Facebook page had appeared in the Guardian. The article featured young social workers in the United Kingdom who expressed concern about their futures and the future of the profession of social work. One young man, Justin, who became a social worker after serving in the British military in Afghanistan, worried about the absence of a strong voice to represent the interests of social workers.

The other article was published in Al Jazeera by Sean McElwee, a young Demos research associate, titled: “Inequality is a disease, voting turnout is the cure.” This is an idea I have been preaching recently. He provides research to support this hypothesis. The questions are: Can social work can be the x-factor that helps propel a movement leading to full voter participation? And who will be the leader(s) of that effort?

What McElwee is stating is quite simple. The 2016 election will not turn so much on who votes but on who stays home. Non-voters are more likely to be low income and lean significantly towards Democrats. Registering these potential voters and getting them to the polls could have significant effects on the outcomes of elections at all levels of government.

Unions traditionally mobilize voters and got them to the polls. However we have seen the number of members and the power of union decline in recent decades.

Will social workers help fill that gap? I believe we can. Social workers can help would-be voters break through barriers such as voter identification. Republican strategist Chris Ladd says it’s time Democrats stop whining about voter ID laws and begin to help people get the documentation they need. Sounds like good advice.

Mildred “Mit” Joyner proposed this idea several years ago when she was president of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). She believes this is something social workers at every level can participate in. Direct service workers can assist clients in understanding the particulars of voting regulations and ensure they have proper documentation when they go to vote. Administrators of agencies can make it a matter of policy to inform clients about exercising their right to vote.

However, according to WRAL News in North Carolina,

Local social service agencies are not giving poor residents adequate opportunities to file and update voter registrations as required by federal law, a letter sent by a group of voting rights advocates warned the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Department of Health and Human Services. Read more 

On the macro level, social workers can work with churches, tenant organizations, and other community-based groups to organize and implement voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Joyner suggests social workers engage the League of Women Voters for information and support. Agencies can learn more from organizations like Nonprofit Vote. Social work students can work with Rock the Vote to encourage young people to vote.

At the same time social workers can continue efforts to overturn misguided laws that restrict voting. We can continue to press Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act. Social workers have a responsibility to work for a more just society that permits and promotes the self-actualization of everyone.

Policies, laws and systems that restrict one’s ability to be all that one can be should be the object of intervention on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. While social workers must pay attention to licensing, research, and building reputation as a fully scientific profession, we also have a mandate to pursue social justice.

Richard Nixon galvanized a large swath of voters who he saw as being neglected and appealed to them as the silent majority. There is a new silent majority today—voters who have been demoralized by the vast sums of money that are gaming the political system. They see the rich getting richer and not much being done to expand opportunity and prosperity for the vast majority of Americans. They are turned off by the negative campaigning and believe voting is an exercise in futility.

Social workers should be participants in the effort to restore hope to these voters—to help them understand that staying away from the polls is exactly what those protecting the status quo wants you to do. Social workers need to be involved politically and be at the policy table. If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re on the menu.

DOJ Sues North Carolina Over New Voter ID Laws

Yesterday, the United States Department of Justice filed suit against the State of North Carolina to contest the passage of the most restrictive voter id laws in country. Prior to the Republican led legislature gaining control, North Carolina was a leader in the country for voter participation which many believe is no longer the case. North Carolina was the only battleground state during the 2012 Presidential Election season to veto and not institute voter id laws.

This suit comes on the heels of a similar suit filed against Texas in its efforts to implement strict voter id laws in the Lone Star State. To counterbalance the law, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) located in Durham North Carolina, is in the process of urging potential voters to register prior to the October 11, 2013 deadline.  In the wake of the new law, same day registration was eliminated. SCSJ is requesting support in their effort to help create awareness and knowledge of the deadline in order to register as many people as possible. If you are interested in helping spread the message of the voter registration deadline, visit SCSJ’s messaging link.

According to MSNBC News:

The law is perhaps the nation’s strictest. In addition to requiring voters to show a limited range of state-issued IDs, it also cuts back on early voting and ends same-day voter registration, among other provisions. All of those provisions disproportionately affect racial minorities, studies show. Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine and a prominent expert on voting, has called the law “a laundry list of ways to make it harder for people to vote.”

Holder called the cutbacks to early voting “especially troubling,” noting that in the last two presidential elections, 70% of minority voters took advantage of early voting.

The measure was pushed by Republican lawmakers who control the state’s legislature, and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. An August poll found that just 39% of North Carolinians support their state’s law, with 50% opposed. Along with a slew of other conservative measures enacted by the Republican government, it helped spark an energetic progressive opposition movement that since the summer has held demonstrations across the state.

Leaders of the movement, including Rev. William Barber III, the president of the state’s NAACP chapter, applauded the lawsuit Monday, as did North Carolina Democrats. Read Full Article

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Rev. Barber is the leader of the Moral Monday protest and the ongoing fight to protect civil rights and the quality of life for North Carolinians. If you are interested in his reaction to the suit brought by the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, view the video below:

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