Elections have consequences. The recent national spotlight on 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. The situation in Ferguson is complicated, but it shouldn’t take a tragedy to underscore the importance of voting as a way for communities to feel represented by their government.
Ferguson is hardly alone in low voter turnout.
In last year’s municipal elections, Hartford had the lowest turnout of the state — just 5.21 percent of those registered actually voted compared to 31 percent statewide (which is a very low bar).
Primaries are even worse. In the GOP gubernatorial primary election in August, statewide turnout was only 20.8 percent.
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, including in areas like health and well-being.
Voting is basic expression of power and an overlooked human right. Too often, the groups most underrepresented are young people, minority and low-income populations — groups that are also more likely to feel distrustful toward their government.
In addition to choosing candidates on Nov. 4, Connecticut residents will have the opportunity to vote in favor of removing outdated restrictions on voting. The goal is to make voting easier by removing the barriers that keep people from voting.
The question is:
Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election?
With a strong yes result, the pressure will be on Connecticut’s legislature to consider ways to make absentee voting less restrictive as well as whether voting on only one day still makes sense for our state.
Its adoption of same-day voter registration in 2012 was a very significant first step to increasing participation, but it’s not enough. We still have issues such as primary dates in August when many people are on vacation, systemic barriers like where and how to get to the polls and a confusing process for casting absentee ballots.
Making voting easier isn’t the only answer to a disengaged electorate. We must all fight the cultural narrative that nothing we do matters. Voters have power. Registering citizens and personally encouraging them to vote is perhaps the most direct way to fight voter apathy (and powerlessness) at the individual and community level.
At the University of Connecticut’s Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, we believe that social workers and nonprofit agencies play an important role in bipartisan voter registration and civic engagement. We all have a role to play as citizens, parents and community members in getting every eligible person registered and voting.
It’s in all our best interest to have a fully engaged and participating electorate. Go to the Humphreys Institute webpage at ssw.uconn.edu for links to voting resources and assistance with voter registration activities.
Tanya Rhodes Smith is the director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work.