2016 Room at the Table: Katharine Hill

December 20, 2016 / By: Katharine Hill for Fall 2016 Perspectives newsletter
Dr. Katharine Hill is a national thought leader on Voting is Social Work
Dr. Katharine Hill

VOTE for Participatory Justice: Working Together for the Promise of Democracy

In support of the School of Social Work’s 2016-17 annual theme Participatory Justice

On October 14, our community participated in its annual Room at the Table event, this year reflecting on the power of our vote to influence and shape the political, economic and social future of our nation, state and local community.

The first speaker, Dr. Jessica Toft, associate professor, School of Social Work, and president, NASW-MN, provided a framework of participatory justice (read Toft overview). Dr. Katharine Hill, associate professor, School of Social Work, and a national thought leader in Voting is Social Work, built a compelling argument that supporting nonpartisan voter registration should be a part of every social worker’s professional practice (see below). Justin Terrell, the Justice4All (J4A) program manager at TakeAction Minnesota, shared his work on removing barriers to employment and democracy for families impacted by the justice system, including voting rights restoration (read Terrell overview).


By Katharine Hill

When people vote, there are benefits to themselves and their communities, including higher levels of civic participation, stronger connections within communities and better outcomes for the individual voters themselves. This includes benefits such as health, social connections, mental health and overall well-being.

Voting influences political decision-making (Avery, 2015; Griffin & Newman, 2005) and overall community health (Blakely, Kennedy, & Ichiro, 2001). Further, communities that have consistent voter turnout are more likely to have their interests and values reflected by elected officials (Leighley & Nagler, 2014). Higher voter turnout by low-income citizens has been shown to result in higher government spending on health care for children, higher minimum wages and regulations on predatory lending (Franko, 2013).

It cannot be denied that communities that turn out and turn up for elections are better served by their elected representatives.

Consider the case of Ferguson, Missouri:

  • In April 2014, prior to the shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Mo. revealed a community in which only 13 percent of the electorate voted, resulting in a mostly white city council, school board and police department in a town where two thirds of the residents are African-American.
  • In April 2015 after a massive voter engagement effort, voter turnout in Ferguson more than doubled. In the April 2015 election, African-American candidates won two of the three  contested seats on the city council and the first African-American woman was elected to that body.

(source: usatoday.com/story/news/2015/04/07/ferguson-votershead-to-polls/25401037)

Voter engagement is also a critical social justice issue. We are taught that voting is an important act of citizenship – but we also live in a country where only 55 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election (CNN, 2016). Among the population of people who do participate, there are large disparities in who votes. Voter turnout tends to be much higher among affluent, white and older Americans.

Many reasons exist why individuals and communities may not participate in voting; in many states, there are both official and unofficial restrictions that lead to voter disengagement and voter suppression (McElwee, 2015). In many states, people who have been convicted of felonies are disenfranchised (Sentencing Project, 2016). Restrictions such as registration deadlines, requiring photo identification and closing or relocating polling places in certain districts (McElwee, 2015) have all created barriers to voter engagement that disproportionately impact low-income communities, people of color and young voters (Lane, Humphreys, Graham, Matthews & Moriarty, 2007; McElwee, 2015). These restrictions undoubtedly have stifled further voter participation by these communities. As social workers, we need to think about the impact of these high levels of disengagement on our clients and on our practice.

I have always been a voter. I have early memories of my mom – a clinical social worker – taking me to the polls with her, and talking with me about the importance of voting and civic engagement. However, I admit that even I did not immediately make the connection between my personal political habits and social work practice. It was not until I began to read the work of Charles Lewis and the Congressional Research Institute on Social Policy (crisp.org) and the Nancy Humphreys Institute at the University of Connecticut that I connected voter engagement with social work practice, specifically to our professional commitment to empowerment.

I challenge all social workers to think about how we can integrate voter engagement into our practice. Here are some things to think about:

  1. Nonpartisan voter engagement is not only legal, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires that states provide voter registration opportunities to clients of public aid programs. This requirement applies to agencies that administer public assistance programs (including, at a minimum, Medicaid, food stamps, TANF and/or WIC), as well as programs serving people with disabilities. A good resource is nonprofitvote.org.
  2. Voting is contextual. People vote if they see their own role in the electoral process. What can we do to help our clients, our colleagues and our communities see that their voices matter? What conversations can we have? How can we engage?
  3. Voting is social. People are more likely to vote if they know other people who vote. How can we build a culture of voter engagement among our clients, our students and communities?  Let’s use our social work relationship-building skills to create and strengthen these social bonds.
  4. Voting is learned. We learn to be voters. What kind of education, mentoring and role modeling can we be providing to our clients and colleagues? What is confusing about the process and how can we challenge this confusion?
  5. Voting is a human right. What steps can we take to address restrictions and barriers to voting that reinforce structural inequalities in our communities?

This can feel like a big challenge. But none of these steps are, in and of themselves, enormous. Having a conversation, engaging with colleagues, supporting our clients is what we do. Think of the power of the nation’s 650,000 social workers and 40,000 social work students coming together to engage our communities in our national, state and local elections. The capacity for change is infinite.

Encouraging and engaging social workers and social work clients in voting is, indeed, good social work practice.

Katharine Hill references - Voting is social work

Other resources can be found on the event page: stthomas.edu/socialwork/Vote4ParticipatoryJustice

This article was published in the Fall 2016 School of Social Work Perspectives newsletter