Equitable access to voting is critical to a strong democracy, communicating the message that all voices matter and are a meaningful part of the political process. In the U.S., however, marginalized communities have experienced, and continue to experience, political injustices as a result of long-standing race-based systemic disenfranchisement efforts that limit their ability to meaningfully participate.
While federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help Americans Vote Act were designed to protect voting rights, states and localities have considerable latitude in how they structure and implement election-related activity. States establish parameters and guidelines for voting and other election-related activity, while localities are generally responsible for implementation. Until 2013, some U.S. states were required to receive extensive federal oversight (preclearance) of all election-related laws because of patterns of racial discrimination in voting; the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder struck down this requirement, resulting in even more flexibility among states and localities.
States and localities therefore can play a critical role in facilitating, or minimizing, voter disenfranchisement. Voter disenfranchisement has been grounded historically in the nation's history of racial discrimination, however, state and local governments also have instituted policies that further inequitable participation on the basis of age, language minority status, income, (dis)ability status, etc.
This context suggests that local governments' implementation of voting and election-related activity is a fertile ground for research into structural barriers to citizen political action. This symposium focuses specifically on research around access to voting rights and other aspects of civic participation at the local government level, with particular attention to access to voting for racial minorities. Papers one and two examine voter participation in a mid-western city. Paper one investigates the role that demographic and economic characteristics play in voter access. Paper two discusses the process by which a study investigating voter access was conducted in partnership with community stakeholders and examines how participating on the study's research team impacted social work students' voter engagement. Paper three focuses on a community-engaged systematic review and analysis of barriers to voter participation (and other forms of civic engagement) in one of the five largest urban counties in the U.S.
Each of these papers reflects research that is community-grounded and that builds on strong researcher-community relationships. Taken together, these three papers represent the early stages of a social work research agenda focused on examining disparities in access to voting and other forms of civic participation, with the goal of informing structural policy reforms to reduce inequities in access to political participation.