Abstract: Political Social Work: Voter Access through a Lens of Race and Poverty in a Hyper-Segregated Community in the U.S (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Political Social Work: Voter Access through a Lens of Race and Poverty in a Hyper-Segregated Community in the U.S

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 10, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Gena McClendon, PhD, Adjunct Professor and Director, Voter Access and Engagement Initiative, Washington University in St. Louis,, Saint Louis, MO
Kyle Pitzer, MSSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Michael Sherraden, PhD, George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor, founder and director, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Aura Aguilar, BA, Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Background and Purpose

In an era of increasing voter suppression laws passed by state legislatures determine who can and can not vote. Research links those living at or below the poverty line and people of color with experiencing fewer opportunities to participate in the electoral process because voter suppression tactics like the propagation of strict voter ID laws, voter intimidation tactics, and faulty and insufficient voting equipment disproportionately burden minorities, according to research.

Grounded in political social work, this observational study sought to understand the consequences of voter suppression in a U.S. urban setting through a lens of race at poll locations to determine if access to voting differed by race and income. Participation in the electoral process is critical to the field of social work in that it gives credence to the idea that awareness, skills, attitudes, values and behaviors are essential to affect the democratic and policy context directly.


An organized review of research literature and data was conducted prior to implementation of the observational study on Election Day. Meetings were held with board of election officials to encourage a partnership to guarantee buy-in and gain a clear understanding of issues from the perspective of election officials.

Recruited and trained students, a majority at the master of social work level and other students from the community, were dispatched to select poll places. Researchers were sworn in as Election Judges allowing them to observe inside each location.

Poll locations were determined by race and poverty in two geographic areas within one urban core. Researchers positioned inside the poll place responded with their views in 15 minute intervals and hourly. Outside observations were made hourly. Students were encouraged to document the experience in field notes so that they could address issues that were not covered in the questions included in the instrument.


Political social work studies that emphasize the impact of voter suppression laws and tactics on Blacks are critical to identifying issues that threaten democracy. Results of this study indicate that voter suppression issues disproportionately burden minorities’ ability to vote.

The analysis of the student researcher survey revealed that their level of interest in voter engagement activities was higher after participation with the study.  Survey respondents reported feeling empowered after participating in the study, planned to participate in voter engagement activities in the future, and agreed that voting is an important area of work in their professional career. 

Conclusions and Implications

The examination of electoral processes found that challenges and barriers at poll places influence a person's opportunity to participate in the electoral process in a hyper-segregated region of the U.S.

Findings of the student researcher survey suggest that engaging students in voter engagement research is an important precursor to civic and political participation in the future.