Abstract: Facilitating the Political Power of Underrepresented Populations: Student Reflections on Voter Engagement (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

Facilitating the Political Power of Underrepresented Populations: Student Reflections on Voter Engagement

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Hylton Mary, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Chair, Salisbury University, Salisbury, MD
Jason Ostrander, PhD, Assistant Professor and MSW Program Director, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT
Adelaide Sandler, PhD, Assistant Professor, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY

While social workers vote at higher rates than the general population (Rome & Hoetchstetter, 2010), Hylton (2015) found that social work students demonstrated low political voice and electoral activity. Furthermore, almost half of licensed social workers feel unprepared for political engagement and more than half of social workers describe themselves as politically inactive or only somewhat active (Ritter, 2007). McCabe et. al. (2017) posit that due to a general decline in civic literacy, schools of social work have an increased responsibility to ensure that social work students gain the knowledge and skills they need through the curriculum and their field experiences to become effective policy advocates. Nonpartisan voter engagement projects provide students opportunities to develop important knowledge, skills and dispositions fundamental to effective policy advocacy.

This presentation describes the outcomes of voter engagement projects conducted by over two hundred social work students over a period of three years. Through an assignment embedded within their macro practice courses, BSW students in their senior year and generalist-level MSW students completed voter engagement projects within their field placements. As a component of this assignment, students submitted reflective essays in which they connected the outcomes of their projects to the CSWE core competencies


Two hundred essays were analyzed using a three-step thematic analysis process. First, a representative sample of the essays were open coded to identify common themes. Open coding was done by three separate researchers to ensure inter-rater reliability of initial codes. Second, initial codes were compared and then collapsed into larger themes, which were then used in the third step of the analysis to code the remainder of the essays.


Findings were organized into four broad categories: 1) client populations engaged, 2) engagement objectives, 3) engagement strategies, and 4) lessons learned. Students reported working predominantly with or on behalf of populations frequently underrepresented in elections, including: young adults, low-income people, recipients of social welfare benefits, people who are disabled, and people who are incarcerated. Additionally, the students focused heavily on raising awareness and educating potential voting groups with the intent of empowering these groups. Students used a variety of strategies that fit both their objectives and population groups, including: creating materials to educate groups about their rights, organizing information events, translating material relevant to voting into Spanish, and door knocking. As a result of their efforts, students reported increases in their critical thinking, critical awareness, and generalist skills, including assessment and engagement.

Conclusion and Implications

The findings from this study illuminate the important role that applied voter engagement assignments can play in facilitating student competence in social justice, advocacy, critical thinking, and engaging the planned change process. Students illustrated a commitment to ensuring equity in voter participation by targeting their outreach to underrepresented groups and through attempts to empower these groups to vote. The presentation will conclude with a discussion of how other social work education programs can incorporate nonpartisan voter engagement within their courses.