By Alison Laurio
The top headline, from NPR on April 5, and those from the Associated Press and the New York Times, both on March 31, highlight the concern and uncertainty many are feeling as the national election approaches during the outbreak of a deadly virus.
Because NASW is among those who view this presidential election as critically important, it will keep members informed and offer them options on how to help, said Melvin Wilson, NASW’s senior policy consultant for social justice and human rights.
“The 2020 election is really, really important to us as an association and to the populations we serve,” Wilson said. “We want to make sure we have someone (in office) who can support our values with those vulnerable populations: social justice, economic justice and justice for immigrant communities.”
NASW is kicking off its 2020 election initiative, which includes events and activities like voter engagement, mobilization and participation. The association also is involved with other coalitions and nonprofits.
“There are a ton of tool kits we can share with our members,” Wilson said.
The focus is on the national election, but downballot state and local elections also are important, he said, and values like fairness and inclusion are essential at all levels.
“We want to make sure candidates address economic concerns like Medicare,” Wilson said. “There are ongoing activities, and we will continue to inform members about any collaboration with other organizations.”
The organizations include Voto Latino; the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; the Voting Rights Task Force; Rock the Vote; Nonprofit VOTE; and National Voter Registration Day. There is collaboration between NASW and Social Work Votes on the voter registration initiative, Wilson said, and members can access the information and tool kits of Rock the Vote, Nonprofit VOTE and Voto Latino on those websites.
Felons’ Rights in Florida
When looking at voting in Florida, remember the state is controlled by the Republican Party—the governorship and the state’s House and Senate, said James H. Akin, the NASW Florida Chapter’s executive director, “so they pretty much set the rules.”
Issues in the 2018 midterms included efforts to restrict some voting sites and rules on how late polling places remained open, he said. “There weren’t any massive issues for the public. It’s just not as easy as it should be.”
This year, Florida held a presidential preference primary election on March 17, and its primary election is Aug. 18.
“NASW always supports everyone having the right to vote,” said Akin, who believes there should be early voting.
Unknown at this point is how COVID-19 concerns will impact voting, and whether there will be more mail-in ballots, he said. “We will see some of this in the Aug. 18 primary. I think the biggest issue will be the impact of the virus. In Florida, when we have a presidential election, you’re going to have a lot of people coming out. The legislature races are all contested, and I think we will be voting on issues.”
“The importance of voting and getting the turnout—to me, that is the key,” he said. “It’s kind of an obvious point, but it’s really going to matter.” The chapter will be doing anything it can to help, he added.
“Social work is involved in every aspect, from campaigns with national organizations to get out the vote to getting students involved,” Akin said. “I do think that’s the key. Social workers understand the importance of people voting.”
One big factor is a 2018 state constitutional amendment granting voting rights for released felons. After it passed, restrictions were added, including that unpaid fines and costs must be paid before voting rights were restored, he said. That was taken to court, then state appeals court, which ruled in February the addition was unconstitutional. The ruling could be challenged.
Akin said the amendment impacts 1.4 million voters and is expected to be settled before the national election. “It’s a major battle here in Florida, so we’ll see if it will have a major influence on the election, like the court ruling one way or another. I think it’s not over with. If there’s no ruling, they may be in limbo.”
Another factor is the state has a large group of people who are registered as Independent, resulting in voters being about one third each Democrat, Republican and Independent, Akin said. In addition, the influx of Puerto Rican residents in central Florida, who moved in after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, now “are an important part of the state vote,” he said. Florida went from a population of 480,000 Puerto Ricans in 2000 to more than 1.2 million in 2017, according to Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub.
Gerrymandering in North Carolina
In North Carolina, “gerrymandering was and is very much real,” said Valerie Arendt, NASW North Carolina executive director.
District maps were redrawn in 2010, and a 2012 court decision found the maps “were gerrymandered with razor precision” in favor of the Republicans in power, particularly in Democratic areas, she said.
They were redrawn in 2012, leaving 10 Republican and three Democratic congressional districts, even though the area had a roughly 50-50 split with some unaffiliated residents, Arendt said. “The districts were unbalanced,” she said, and the court found they were, so in 2019 they again were redrawn.
“They’re much better,” Arendt said. “They’re not perfect, but the way they did it, it’s a better balance for both the congressional and the Senate districts.”
During the period districts were gerrymandered, from 2014 to 2016, the state legislature passed “a lot of laws to limit voting hours,” she said, and the courts also decided those were 100 percent voter suppression. The courts also ruled other issues unconstitutional, including a 2016 voter ID law, although that did not stop its proponents from getting it on the 2018 ballot as an addition to the state constitution because the court decision had found that was the only way to add it, Arendt said.
“There are so many reasons why that is a barrier for people to vote,” she said. “Some can’t drive, some can’t leave home, others have to work.”
The court did issue a temporary stay, and in February it defeated the requirement. “We continue to work with our partners to ensure voting accessibility for all individuals, including communities of color,” Arendt said. “There were a lot of ups and downs, a lot of victories and setbacks, but there will be no ID required in the November elections.”
She is waiting to see how the coronavirus impacts the ability of people to get to the polls. While absentee voting exists, the barriers are in the requirements. No ID is required, but ballots must be marked in the presence of two witnesses or a notary, and somebody must sign it, she said.
After Hurricane Dorian struck the Outer Banks in September 2019, the legislature held a special session. “It was supposed to be about hurricane relief, but they also changed some of the voting laws,” Arendt said. “They cut a number of polling places, reduced hours, shortened early voting time and took away Sunday voting. It was pretty significant. Instead of making it more accessible, they made it more difficult.”
That followed moves that had split college campus voting districts in half to limit student participation, voices “we particularly need in our elections,” she said. “It’s a work in progress. We hope we have courts that will uphold voting and citizens’ rights to vote.”
When it comes to voting impact, a big unknown is COVID-19. A short legislative session was set for April, but it’s unknown how it would be addressed, Arendt said. “I think it’s important to start considering this."
Arendt said the chapter develops a voter guide every year, because laws change every year. “It’s a big resource for folks. We are making sure they have the information they need to participate in our democracy.”
The day before Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary election, the state Supreme Court overturned an order by Gov. Tony Evers that postponed the election to June 9 because of the public health risk from the coronavirus. Hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with the Republican-controlled legislature, which had challenged the order.
The U.S. Supreme Court, on the same day, weighed in with its ruling against Wisconsin Democrats, who had asked for an extension for absentee ballots. The nation’s high court said all primary-election ballots must be counted by Election Day on Tuesday, April 7.
“The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters. “By cutting off the absentee ballot extension, she wrote, the court’s decision forces voters to choose between endangering their safety by showing up in person or losing their right to vote.”
News reports stated the number of polling places in Milwaukee had been reduced from 180 to only five. Many poll workers said they were not going to work at the polls, so the National Guard was called in to replace them.
NASW-Wisconsin Executive Director Marc D. Herstand said the history of voter suppression began when Republicans in the state passed a voter ID bill in 2011.
“A number of groups sounded the alarm,” he said. Several court challenges later, the law went into effect in time for the 2016 election. Some residents were not able to vote. They had no birth certificate, couldn’t afford to get one, and many didn’t have a driver’s license, Herstand said. “There are a lot of concerns about voter ID. If college students are from another state and have no driver’s license, they can’t use a student ID.”
“If someone is turned away (at the polls), they’re unlikely to come back. And some who are poor or elderly or disabled don’t have a driver’s license at all. They can’t travel to get a birth certificate. There really are big barriers to people just to vote,” he said, “and people have found the level of (voter) fraud is miniscule.”
Herstand said the various methods, promoted by Republicans, “are just another barrier that prevent people from voting. One state senator heard on tape admitted (the voter ID bill) was going to help Republicans, so it’s pretty clear why they did it.”
Like in North Carolina, gerrymandering is an issue, he said. It happened when Republicans swept the 2010 midterm election. “Republicans spent $1 million at taxpayers’ expense, hired lawyers, and drew lines that probably are the most gerrymandered in the country.”
“In the 2018 elections, social workers were very active,” Herstand said. “In 2020 we are committed to hire a political organization for the first time. We also are trying to do a reception at the Democratic National Convention. Illinois also is involved with that.”
He said they are planning events, including social work canvas day and social work phone sessions, “where we will go down to headquarters and all make calls together.” Social workers also are organizing within college campuses so students can go out on weekends and encourage people to get out and vote.
“Some social work students in the past were more involved than the general public,” he said. “So there’s interest there. And social workers can write letters to editors, call in to talk shows and put out lawn signs. There are many things they can do to get involved in the election, and that can make a big difference.”
Helping at polling places is another option, Herstand said. “One thing I’ve done when I’ve monitored the polls is make sure no suppression is going on. And if there are long lines at the polls, people can call attorneys who can intervene if suppression is going on. I’ve done that.”
“Another time I and one other social worker knocked on doors to make sure people were going to vote, maybe remind them to vote and insure they have proper ID,” he said. “There are a lot of social justice groups people can get involved with, too.”
Voting Is Social Work
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting existing weaknesses in our election system and presenting significant new challenges to safe, widely accessible, inclusive and secure elections. States and municipalities are unprepared to meet these new challenges, and Congress has yet to address the issue with sufficient funding or legislation, said Tanya Rhodes Smith, instructor in residence and director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford, Conn.
Organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice have issued detailed policy recommendations for Congress, states and municipalities that include expanding online voter registration, expanding mail-in voting options and making voting in person accessible and safe, she said.
Election laws and policies are determined state-by-state, and no single approach works for all populations, particularly those who face the most challenges to voting—Native Americans; low-income individuals; non-English speakers; individuals with a felony conviction; and the elderly, Rhodes Smith said.
Recommendations require immediate funding and planning. For example, 12 states offer no online system for voter registration or to update current registration, she said. “Also, all states need to prepare immediately for a dramatic increase in absentee ballots, which should be streamlined, more accessible and less restrictive.”
Voting should be easy, accessible and secure, especially for those who face the most barriers and have the most risk from the COVID-19 crisis, she said.
The pandemic also threatens the 2020 census, Rhodes Smith said, which determines political representation, as well as $1.5 trillion in annual funding for health care, safety net programs, education, infrastructure and more— and future investments in our states, towns and communities.
“Social workers serve all of the communities at risk for being under-counted and can play a critical role in addressing people’s fears and helping them respond,” Rhodes Smith said. They also are well-positioned as trusted voices to engage voters—especially non-voters who are least likely to be included in campaign outreach and public discourse.
“Voting is a human right and the most important tool for ensuring the government responds to citizens’ needs, including health care, housing, food, education and safety,” Rhodes Smith said.
Low voter turnout means reduced political power and resources, and social workers can help boost turnout in many and important ways.
“Nonpartisan voter engagement is legal, ethical and central to social work’s mission and impact,” Rhodes Smith said. “Those in direct practice can help clients navigate structural barriers, build civic literacy, share nonpartisan information and undo the narrative that voting doesn’t matter to people’s lives.”
Social workers also can join voting rights groups to advocate for resources and policies, and educators can teach students why voting matters to the impact of social work. Those in the field and those studying can volunteer as election workers and monitors in primaries and the November election, she said.
“Finally, everyone in the profession should be addressing myths, providing assistance and encouraging every person and family to participate in the 2020 Census,” Rhodes Smith said.
Social workers can go to votingissocialwork.org for more information, resources and tools, and they can join the campaign, she said.