CSSW Presses to Get Out the Vote
CSSW redoubles its longstanding commitment to expanding the vote and standing up for the people social workers serve. (See links at the end of this article for ways to get involved!)
At a time when the United States is commemorating the centenary of the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, Columbia School of Social Work has been furthering its history of activism in getting out the vote. In advance of the 2020 general election, the CSSW community has launched the Social Work Votes campaign. Led by CSSW students in collaboration with faculty members, the initiative is partnering with Voting Is Social Work and other voter engagement initiatives—including the Latino Leadership Institute—with the goal of mobilizing the social work community nationwide to get out the vote among the people social workers serve.
Social Work Votes: A Panel Discussion
The School of Social Work kicked off its Social Work Votes campaign with a virtual panel hosted by Dean Melissa Begg. The panelists (comprising a mix of students, an alum, and faculty members who are involved in the new campaign) discussed voting rights, voter suppression, and access to voting—and called for the social work community to stand up to defend voting rights.
In her introductory remarks, Dean Begg said, “We face what may be the most consequential election of our lives while we are also confronting the global epidemics of COVID and anti-Black racism”—all against the backdrop of our nation’s long history of voter suppression. “Voting is one of our most fundamental rights and social workers must be ready to defend that right,” she said.
John Robertson, a professor of social policy and the panel moderator, opened by saying that the United States’ electoral system is “designed to exclude rather than include.”
Adjunct Assistant Professor Jaime Estades, the founding director of the Latino Leadership Institute, which aims to “empower Latinos and other minorities by increasing their participation in the democratic process,” concurred, saying: “Voting in the United States. has always existed from the perspective of a privilege, not a right.” He added that, since the 2010 Citizens United decision removed restrictions from campaign finance, “money has become the number one element in elections.” The two major parties “have become franchises, like McDonald’s and Burger King,” and in order to run, candidates must choose which party will fund their campaigns Explaining that his Institute provides training and data that helps candidates from poor communities run for office, Estades said: “Everybody’s equal in the Latino Leadership Institute, regardless of educational level.”
Charles E. Lewis, Jr., a 2002 PhD graduate of our School and the founding director of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP), said that from his point of view, voting was only the beginning of a long road: “Our work begins when we cast our votes.” Once we elect representatives at any level, Lewis said, we “must be watchful” to ensure that they are acting on behalf of social workers and their clients. CRISP raises social workers’ influence on federal legislation in areas such as education and housing, not just those issues that are directly related to the profession. “We can be more proactive,” he said, “by taking our ideas to legislators.”
“What difference would it make if poor people voted?” asked Assistant Professor Rob Hartley as he presented graphics summarizing the findings of a study he had conducted for the Poor People’s Campaign, comparing how many poor people in each state did not vote in the 2016 presidential elections, and how easily their participation could have shifted the outcome. One quarter of nonvoters “think candidates and issues are not speaking to them,” he said, noting that if social workers were to influence people’s ability to show up, it would “make a very plausible difference in our political outcomes.”
The three student panelists, Sarah Jamgotch, Xinrui Lyu, and Tess Ariel Weiner, all of whom are entering their second year of studies, spoke of their efforts to build a coalition with other schools of social work around the country, saying they hoped to mobilize social work students in becoming a force for persuading the people social workers serve to exercise their right to vote.
Jamgotch pointed to a “disconnect” among generations regarding voting, but urged all social work students to get involved. “We don’t need to be experts” in the electoral process to get out the vote, she said. Social work students can find a way to participate that uses their skills, interests, and favored media. “Find joy in the solutions and bring in your own communities,” she said. “Voting can be therapeutic and healing.”
Lyu, who is a Chinese citizen, said, “Although I am an international student who cannot vote, there are still many things I can do to help.” She lends her talents to Social Work Votes as a website designer and podcast interviewer, and urges other international students to help their American clients register to vote. “Don’t set any restrictions on yourself,” she advises. “We have the power to empower communities.”
Weiner invoked an adage that she had learned from Professor Estades’s class: “Voter suppression is as American as apple pie.” Listing tactics that include closed polling places in Black communities and registration purges of Democratic voters, she observed: “They are very thorough about who is not included.” She also said that young people are more likely to become active in getting out the vote when they see links between voting and their own life or the lives of their friends.
As the event concluded, Dean Begg reminded all that “voting is a tool to fight for social justice.” The panelists reaffirmed their commitment to standing up and taking action to train, organize, and mobilize the vote—and the School opened its latest chapter in the strand of its history that links social work to helping those who are still fighting for the right to vote in the United States.
A Legacy of Promoting Voting Rights
CSSW’s history in voting rights began when alumna Jeannette Rankin, who is distinguished for having become the first woman elected to Congress, helped with the successful fight to pass the 19th Amendment. It continued with the activism of Professor Richard Cloward, who picked up the battle in challenging voter suppression by advocating for the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the Motor Voter Bill.
“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last,” declared Jeannette Rankin on August 29, 1916, after winning a Montana seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This may be Rankin’s most memorable achievement (and statement), but she also deserves credit for the pivotal role that she played in the passage of a constitutional amendment securing women’s right to vote, exactly one hundred years ago. One of our School’s most famous alumni, Rankin earned a degree in biology at the University of Montana before heading east to attend the New York School of Philanthropy, the precursor to the Columbia School of Social Work. She went back west to work briefly as a social worker before finding her calling as a political activist and ultimately as a politician, rising to national prominence in large part because of her organizing efforts around helping women gain the vote.
Of course, what Rankin and other suffrage activists achieved, while impressive, also had its limitations. The 19th Amendment stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” At least in theory, it extended the vote to between 26 million and 30 million women, making it the single largest expansion of voting rights in United States history.
In practice, however, it did not address racial discrimination, leaving women of color, who had also fought for suffrage, unable to vote. Their enfranchisement would only come much later, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its extension in 1975 that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and required voting materials be available in multiple languages.
While the situation has improved, with many more women of all races engaged in the democratic process and running for office, the last few years have seen a number of attacks on voting rights, made possible by the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, which discontinued federal oversight of local voting laws in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination—making the need to battle against voter suppression all the more imperative.* In light of these obstacles, we take encouragement from Rankin’s prophecy, that she would not be the last woman to be elected to Congress, with Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color on a major party ticket.
Richard Cloward, a sociologist and professor at the Columbia School of Social Work from 1954 to 2001, was a celebrated voting rights advocate. After Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to address voting discrimination against members of marginalized communities, he argued for federal legislation to remove other voter registration barriers. In collaboration with his wife, Frances Fox Piven, a fellow sociologist who taught at CUNY, he founded “Human SERVE” (Service Employees Registration and Voter Education) in the early 1980s, which established motor-voter programs in selected states, requiring state motor vehicle agencies to offer voter registration opportunities to clients applying for driver’s licenses. These programs became the precedents for the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the Motor Voter Act, that was enacted in 1993, marking a major step in addressing the nation’s long history of suppressing the vote of poor Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous people.
More recently, two prominent CSSW alumni, Mimi Abramowitz and Terry Mizrahi, have taken on the mantle of battling voter suppression. They launched the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign, also known as Voting Is Social Work, before the 2016 election, with the mission of rallying the social work community to get out the vote.
*At the time of his death this summer, Rep. John Lewis was working with others to restore these safeguards via the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is now stalled in Congress.
How to Get Involved
Voting Is Social Work offers resources for schools of social work, field educators, social work students, and social service agencies, including a social media toolkit and various fact sheets on integrating get-out-the-vote efforts into social service agencies.
The Latino Leadership Institute runs an Electoral Leadership Academy to empower leaders with the tools necessary to run for office and win.
CSSW, Social Work Votes, and the Latino Leadership Institute will sponsor two events in the near future:
1) An address by pastor, author, and social justice advocate Dr. William J. Barber II on September 15. Among his many posts, Dr. Barber is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary.
2) A daylong 2020 Electoral Activism Training Academy on September 26. In what may be interpreted as a nod to Jeanette Rankin’s achievements, the training will include a lunchtime panel, moderated by Jamgotch, called “Celebrating the Centenary of Many Women’s Right to Vote in the U.S.,” featuring several women who are elected officials or union leaders. Mathylde Frontus, a member of the New York State Assembly and a PhD alumna of CSSW, is slated to participate.
- Elevating the Profession One Ballot at a Time (2.10.20 news article)
- SOCIAL IMPACT LIVE: Mimi Abramovitz and the Social Work Is Voting Campaign (11.27.20 video interview and transcript)