Keynote: Voter Engagement: Mobilizing the Political Power of Marginalized Groups (Marist, Salisbury, and Sacred Heart University)
Recent political events have led to a resurgence of political awareness and engagement of the public in organized political protests. The profession of social work can seize this political window of opportunity to assist vulnerable populations in gaining political power. Voter engagement is an important component of political power, and is, therefore, a valuable intervention strategy for social workers.
Voting is essential to a just and equitable welfare state. Voting allows citizens to hold policymakers accountable and, when protected by law, ensures equality of representation. When voter turnout of any one particular demographic or social group is significantly less than other groups, that group loses its power to protect its basic economic interests and social rights. Politicians prioritize the needs of citizens who engage in the highest and most frequent levels of political participation (Leighley & Nagler, 2014). For those groups who vote less or who have historically been denied the right to vote, the consequences of not voting are significant (Rolfe, 2013; Piven, 2011).
Given the importance of political power in resource allocation, voter engagement is both an ethical obligation and an important tool for social workers working with low-income clients and communities. To be effective in the use of this tool, social workers need a strong understanding of the nuances involved in voter engagement as well as practical strategies for engaging people in voting.
Nancy Humphreys, founder of the University of Connecticut’s Humphreys’ Institute for Political Social Work, conceptualized voter engagement as a three-legged stool, in which each leg is necessary for people to access the political power that emanates from voting. Humphreys posited that effective voter engagement of politically vulnerable people must include: (a) voter registration, (b) regular voting, and (c) basing voting decisions on self-interest to protect their basic human rights. By focusing attention to all three legs, social workers can increase the representation and maximize the political power of vulnerable populations. The authors will present this conceptual framework as well as specific strategies for how social workers can engage clients in each of three legs or dimensions.
Understand how voter engagement fits within the social work’s mission, values, and practice;
Articulate the connection between voter engagement and political power as well as political power and social justice;
Identify the three dimensions of voter engagement and outline strategies for increasing engagement in each dimension.