Roadblocks to Voter Registration by Social Workers: Myths and Barriers

Published on : August 28, 2020

Although most social workers participate in political activities, the Voting Is Social Work campaign found that there are several myths that stand in the way of voter engagement, especially on the job. 

Myth: Encouraging people to register to vote while on the job is unprofessional and unethical, and raising the subject of voting interferes with the client–worker relationship.
Fact: Encouraging people to register to vote—and not support a specific candidate or party—is legal and ethical in any setting. The Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers support encouraging clients and communities to register to vote. 

Myth: I work for a government agency and therefore cannot encourage people to register to vote. The Hatch Act bans any and all political speech. 
Fact: The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity that supports specific parties or candidates while on duty or in a federal building. Encouraging clients and communities to register to vote does not violate the Hatch Act so long as social workers, educators, students, or administrators do not advocate for a specific candidate or political party. 

You can always refer to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel for guidelines on the Hatch Act. 

Myth: Engaging in voter registration campaigns is not permitted by universities or colleges. 
Fact: Similar to federal employees and the Hatch Act, professors and faculty members can generally encourage students to register to vote and to vote in elections so long as professors and faculty members do not advocate for a particular candidate. There may be restrictions at some institutions, so it is wise to check with university administrations.
There are ways to integrate voter engagement activities into social work education, and resources can be found on Voting Is Social Work

Myth: Voter registration can be done only in county/state election offices or online. 
Fact: In addition to government election offices and websites, people can register to vote at Departments of Motor Vehicles. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act, the Motor Voter bill, requires states to allow people to register to vote at motor vehicle bureaus or when applying for government benefits such as food stamps or public assistance. 

Myth: Homeless persons do not have the right to vote.
Fact: No state requires voters to live in a traditional residence. Homeless persons may use a shelter, for example, as a residence when registering to vote. 

Myth: People guilty of a felony cannot vote.
Fact: People who have been convicted of a felony can register to vote in many states, provided that some prerequisites are met, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  

Systemic Barriers: Structural Racism and Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Social justice is a core principle of social work practice and calls for ensuring meaningful participation in decision making for all people. Voting, the hallmark of a democracy, is increasingly at risk today. Structural racism and fear of a free election chip away at our right to vote and challenge free and fair elections and the democratic ideal of equality for all. Since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, civil rights opponents have pushed voter suppression laws designed to demoralize the electorate, to make people believe that voting does not matter and that the system is rigged. The main tactics include

  • gerrymandering voting districts to favor the party in power;

  • purging voters from registration lists, ending early voting;

  • introducing voter ID laws;

  • disenfranchising felons who have served their time;

  • limiting the census count; and

  • weakening the U.S. Postal Service to discourage voting by mail.

Voting is a human right that provides individuals equal voice, self-determination, power in the political system, and meaningful participation in the decision-making process. Social workers have understood the importance of voting to political action, community power, and social justice dating back to the Settlement House movement. Voter engagement remains central to social work values today! Evidence shows that voter engagement increases individual well-being, advances civic participation, and increases social justice.

By registering and encouraging people to vote, social workers

  • improve individual well-being (micro);

  • empower individuals and communities to be decision makers (micro/mezzo);

  • strengthen organizations and communities (mezzo);

  • influence government decision making (macro);

  • secure social policies that promote social justice (macro); and

  • overcome voter suppression (macro).

The authors, Mimi Abramovitz and Terry Mizrahi, are managers of the National Social Work Voter Registration Campaign, which advocates for every American to be registered to vote in any election.