Breaking Down Barriers to Voting

Policy; Public Health; Students

In preparation for the upcoming November midterm elections, students and faculty at the Brown School have been working on a variety of voting rights and civic engagement initiatives.

These will be the first elections held since Missouri enacted a voter ID law in June 2017, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to invalidate part of the Voting Rights Act.

In response to this, the Brown School’s Center for Social Development (CSD) began the Voter Access and Engagement (VAE) initiative in late 2017. The project uses academic research and social innovation to uphold every citizen’s right to vote, taking special care to work on behalf of the marginalized communities whose vote is most threatened.

Recognizing that the Brown School is located in St. Louis is essential to this project. Missouri is historically a swing state, and St. Louis has long been a testing ground for major civil rights cases, starting with the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

CSD investigates the various physical and social barriers that threaten each citizen’s right to vote. The team at VAE then uses geographic information systems to physically map out these barriers and investigate what can be done to break them down. VAE has been forging connections with community organizations, partner universities and campus institutions across the Midwest to work on this issue from a nonpartisan and balanced perspective.

“Historically, social work has stood for — and fought for — improving the well-being of individuals and families, advancing human rights, defining and safeguarding social protections, and ensuring for everyone the fundamental opportunity to participate as part of the whole,” said VAE Project Director Gena Gunn McClendon.

Summer Voter Engagement Summit

In early August, CSD joined the Gephardt Institute and the Campus Election and Engagement Project to host an inaugural Community Voter Engagement Summit at the Brown School. This event brought together students and faculty from area institutions, including St. Louis University and the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL). Participants were able to ask questions of local officials from both political parties who oversee the election process in St. Louis. The summit left participants with concrete action items that they can use going forward in their activism around voting rights and access.

One participant in the summit was second year MSW/MPH student Clair Antoine, who is also the founder and treasurer of the Missouri Civics Project, a political action committee in started in 2017 by concerned citizens who want to encourage Missourians to participate in local politics; they also conduct campaign staffer and candidate training. Clair represents an important group of students on the Washington University campus who are fired up about social change, and has thought extensively about how the Brown School community can play a key role in that change.

“I see civic engagement as a public health issue. When folks are disconnected from the civic process […] they are cut off from a vital function that decides not only who sits in office, but how those representatives allocate resources,” said Clair.

 “I believe it is our responsibility as social workers and public health professionals to be educated on local issues and to vote in ways which further equitable policy, or to vote absentee in our own respective communities.”

Clair works within the Brown School to increase student knowledge and enthusiasm for the democratic process, recognizing and emphasizing social work’s historic role in fighting for equal access to the right to participate in society.

National Voter Registration Day, September 25

In advance of National Voter Registration Day on September 25, CSD has partnered with TurboVote. Together they created an easy-to-use voter registration page, useful for first-time voters and those who have just moved to St. Louis. The service sends students reminders as election day approaches and helps students apply for an absentee ballot.

Additionally, the Engage Democracy initiative from Washington University’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement has expanded National Voter Registration Day into an entire week at Washington University. For the week of September 24-28, representatives from Engage Democracy will be hosting voter registration drives across campus.

Rachel White, a first year MSW student who is working as the Engage Democracy Fellow at the Gephardt Institute, is helping to lead a targeted graduate student voter engagement strategy. Rachel focuses on educating graduate students on the issues they have the opportunity to vote on in these midterms, and helping them with the process of voting—both in person and with an absentee ballot. Rachel is passionate about the Engage Democracy initiative because of its broad-based outreach plans and emphasis on life-long engagement regardless of party affiliation.

Rachel has been excited about voting rights since middle school. “I have come to understand the complex ways in which voting—and the right to vote, uninhibited—is essential for creating just democracy, and the impact of a since vote, especially in local elections,” they said. “It is inspiring to me to realize that change is possible, and that electing people who represent your interests is one small way to make that happen.”