Abstract: Voter Mobilization and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Overcoming Barriers to Voter Engagement during the 2020 Election Season in St. Louis (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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699P Voter Mobilization and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Overcoming Barriers to Voter Engagement during the 2020 Election Season in St. Louis

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Gary Parker, MSW, Associate Dean for External Affairs, Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis, MO

Background and Purpose: In 2020, voters in St. Louis City and St. Louis County faced two significant elections. In August, voters were to determine if the state should opt-in to the Affordable Care Act. For the November election, Americans were choosing who would be President of the United States. The lack of access to affordable health care combined with a federal administration at odds with the Black Lives Matter movement elevated the importance of electoral engagement within communities of color.

As the 2020 election season was starting, COVID-19 quickly evolved into a global pandemic. Emerging data revealed the health and economic wellbeing of communities of color were disproportionately affected. Municipalities enacted public health orders aimed at reducing public interaction to slow the spread of the disease and created new barriers between mobilizers and voters.

This paper seeks to understand how the pandemic affected the strategy and tactics of mobilizers. Additionally, participants were asked for policy solutions that would increase voter participation.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted when health orders had been issued that limited in person contact. Interviews were conducted, recorded and transcribed via Zoom, an online video conferencing platform.

Study participants were involved in voter mobilization efforts within low-income and poverty-impacted neighborhoods of St. Louis. Sampling strategy included a combination of criterion and chain sampling. Semi-structured interview guides were developed using key themes informed by the theoretical framework and literature. Using a deductive and inductive approach, thematic analysis was conducted. An a priori deductive analysis began with a set of predetermined codes shaped by the research questions, literature and theoretical framework. During data analysis, the research team used an inductive analysis that identified new codes and the codebook evolved driven by the data. A thematic analysis was conducted using the constant comparative method in the grounded theory approach.

Findings: The findings from qualitative interviews document how mobilizers overcome barriers among populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and less likely to vote. Mobilizers detail policies that could increase access to the polls and ameliorate existing administrative burdens placed on potential voters.

In order to protect the health and safety, there was a greater reliance on technology and social media. Another common theme was the confusion around the changing rules surrounding absentee and mail-in voting. Communicating how to navigate the complicated absentee and mail-in ballot rules created an additional burden to organizers.

Conclusions and Implications: The dominant theme was the recognition that the process of voting is complicated. COVID-19 exacerbated existing barriers and produced new obstacles to voting. Mobilizers spent time and resources on addressing administrative burden through increasing the procedural efficacy of voters. Easing the burden of access will ultimately require federal intervention to homogenize the process for voters. This would allow voters and organizers to focus more on the issues and candidates and less on increasing procedural efficacy.