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Five Reminders for Social Workers on the Run-up to the Election
By Rose Frech, MSW, LSW
September 2016

As Election Day draws near, it is important for social workers to brush up on their roles and responsibilities related to political and social action. In the midst of a particularly polarizing presidential election, it can be tempting to tune out in an attempt to avoid the heated rhetoric and insult slinging that has taken over the daily news cycle. However, as social workers, we have an important ethical obligation to participate. The following are some ways for social workers to perform our roles as advocates and stay engaged this election season.

Vote. Voting is both the easiest and perhaps the most important way that social workers can fulfill our obligation to create broader social change. Voting is both a right and a responsibility. According to Pew Research, however, the United States ranks 35th among developed countries for voter turnout, as only about one-half of the voting-age population participates in any given election. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the most commonly cited reason given for not voting is being too busy. While many social workers maintain hectic schedules and can no doubt relate to this rationale, our role in elections cannot be diminished. Social workers have a broad knowledge of the challenges facing members of our community and are trained to examine issues holistically, considering both the individual and societal impact of policies. Therefore, social workers are uniquely equipped to vet the candidates and the solutions they propose.

Many people feel removed from decisions made in Washington, DC (or your state's capital). With public disdain for politics at an all-time high, it's easy to feel disempowered by the infighting and gridlock evident in our current political culture. Despite this, there are countless decisions that elected officials make on a regular basis that impact social workers and clients, including key decisions on funding and eligibility for public benefits. By voting, social workers can throw support behind those whose positions best align with the profession's values.

While this year's presidential race will certainly be at the forefront for many, be mindful not to overlook the importance of down-ballot races. It is often the outcome of these elections that have a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of both our clients and us. City and county elected officials are often responsible for allocating funds to important social service programs and play an important role in local health, employment, and justice system efforts. Therefore, the lower part of the ballot may be more important than the top.

Remember, your vote matters. Today, with early voting and vote by mail options, finding the time to vote is easier than ever. Put it on the schedule and keep it there.

Do your research. So, you know you need to vote. But whom should you vote for? It has become increasingly difficult to find reliable information on the issues and candidates from nonpartisan sources. Even mainstream news organizations tend to offer a particular ideological slant, and many people don't have the time to investigate the political leanings of every website. While avoiding bias entirely is a challenge, there are resources that can provide impartial information on candidate positions and other ballot initiatives.

Project Vote Smartis an easy-to-navigate website that provides nonpartisan biographical information, position statements, voting records, and campaign finance information on thousands of candidates. The site also provides tools to help voters make decisions about candidates based on their own positions.

The League of Women Votersis another important resource. Visitors to the website can provide their address to access local voter guides, information on registration and early voting deadlines, and see sample ballots.

Many may struggle to align their position on issues with a particular candidate. ISideWithis an online quiz that assesses your position on a variety of issues, and determines to what extent your views may align with a particular political candidate.

Visiting candidate websites remains one of the best options to research a candidate's position on issues that matter to you. A simple Google search should get you there.

Get out the vote. While voter turnout rates are abysmal across the board, those most likely to vote remain those with higher incomes. Younger people are less likely to vote, as are Hispanic and Asian Americans. Among those with very low incomes, voter turnout rates are equally low. If the electorate continues to skew wealthy and older, policies are likely to continue to skew toward the needs of those populations at the expense of the rest of the public. Voting provides a rare opportunity for those who often feel powerless to participate in the political process, and increases the likelihood that their needs will be addressed by policy makers.

Social workers can play an important role in encouraging clients and other vulnerable members of the community to vote. Many professionals may stray from this topic when engaging with clients for fear of presenting as partisan; however, educating individuals on their right to vote and engaging in discussions around the importance of participating is not only appropriate but also key to increasing voter turnout among marginalized groups. Barriers to voting may include lack of transportation, lack of information on the candidates or issues, conflicting work schedules, mobility limitations, or, in some states, a lack of appropriate identification. Individuals returning to the community after a felony conviction may be unsure of their ability to vote, which differs by state. Clients who move frequently may need to regularly update their voter registration. Literacy may be a challenge for others. Social workers may assist clients in overcoming these barriers, provide nonpartisan resources for clients on the issues and candidates, and guide clients through the registration and voting process.

Know your ethical responsibilities around social and political activity. As previously mentioned, social workers have a special ethical obligation to participate in social and political activity at all times of the year. According to the NASW Code of Ethics:

"Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice."

While voting is an important part of advocacy, our involvement in social change efforts must not stop there. Regardless of our daily roles and responsibilities, advocacy on behalf of individuals and communities is not a part of our profession we should chose to ignore. However, many social workers feel overwhelmed by this responsibility. Some feel strapped for time and are unsure about how to incorporate these activities into their busy lives. Others are introverts and may feel anxiety at the idea of attending a rally or meeting face-to-face with a politician. However, there are many ways that social workers can be active in advocacy and political action without a huge time commitment or leaping from their comfort zone.

For example, e-mail has made communicating with policy makers easier than ever. Elected officials rely on their constituents to inform them on issues facing the community and will often cite communication from constituents as playing a key role in their decision-making. It is always appropriate to respectfully e-mail or call your legislator to share information on the challenges or barriers you are observing in practice, or to suggest ideas for addressing these issues.

Social media provides another opportunity for advocacy. Sharing information on Facebook or Twitter on issues related to social justice or human rights can be an important way of educating others and drawing attention to an issue.

Some of us struggle to stay up to date on policy issues facing our fields of practice; this may limit our willingness to engage in advocacy. Most advocacy organizations send regular e-blasts with updates on legislation and ways to get involved. Sign up, and spend a few minutes each week browsing these messages.

Additionally, never overlook the importance of encouraging clients to engage in advocacy around issues that impact their lives. When a forthcoming policy change will significantly impact your clientele, make sure that they are aware and knowledgeable about how to advocate if they chose.

Be mindful of potential limitations. Social workers may also have concerns about their role in advocacy and political action if they are employed by a nonprofit agency. These concerns are not unwarranted, as there are some restrictions on the activities of nonprofits (also called 501(c)(3) organizations) in this regard. While advocacy is not a restricted activity, political activities and some forms of lobbying may be. For example, the Internal Revenue Service prohibits any 501(c)(3) from involvement in political campaigns. This does not include nonpartisan efforts to get out the vote such as encouraging voter registration. Lobbying, generally understood as attempts to influence specific legislation, is not entirely prohibited, but there are restrictions on the amount of time and resources nonprofits can commit to these efforts. However, advocacy efforts to educate individuals on issues that affect their lives, and working within your community to develop solutions to these issues, are generally unrestricted. When in doubt, ask your supervisor.

The role of social workers in political and social action cannot be overstated. We as social workers can act as role models in our community, by respectfully engaging in the process and encouraging others to do the same. Our work doesn't end on Election Day. Consider how you will stay engaged in social and political activity throughout the year and work to create a brighter and more just community for all.

— Rose Frech, MSW, LSW, is an assistant college lecturer at the School of Social Work at Cleveland State University.