Methods: The study employed fuzzy cognitive mapping (FCM), a novel mixed methods approach, to study the barriers to voting. FCM combines qualitative inquiry with matrix algebra, allowing individuals to identify a range of institutions, actors, and spatial factors and how they interact (i.e., strength and direction) (Ozemi and Ozemi 2004). It helps build a picture of power structures within the socio-ecological system that influence rural civic/political engagement. Semi-structured interviews took place from December 2018 to March 2019 and 14 participants were asked a series of questions focusing on their experience with voting. Additionally, 55 self-administered surveys collected from the same region during the 2018 midterm elections were analyzed to supplement the findings.
Results: FCM analysis revealed four heavy transmitter variables that impact other systems: power (class, status, transportation), knowledge/information (lack of clear understanding of rules, procedures, and who is running for office), motivation (apathy), and mobilization (town hall, door knocking, social media communication). Decisions to vote (or not vote) were related to the following system components: external efficacy (perceptions of government responsiveness), power, knowledge/internal efficacy, and motivation. Supplementary survey results showed that 65.5% were Black and an average resident had lived in the community for 25.8 years. Over 64% believed that government officials actually cared about people like themselves and 61.5% thought they had a good understanding of important political issues. However, only 11.9% correctly reported which seats were up for elections. Participants identified the following as the most important issues facing the community: poverty and lack of jobs and housing (43.2%); absence of hospitals and grocery stores (15.9%); insufficient education and afterschool resources for at-risk youth (13.6%); and dilapidated infrastructure, crime and effective law enforcement (22.8%). Other issues identified include a lack of community (apathy) and civic engagement, enhancing voting rights, and reducing racial stigma.
Conclusions/Implications: This was an exploratory study that collected unique empirical data on political/civic engagement in an impoverished rural area. Using a novel mixed-methods approach, the study identified the strength and directions of community factors that influenced voting behavior. Supplementary surveys revealed local needs and strengths as they relate to political literacy and agency. How social work can enhance community resilience in these segregated, marginalized rural communities through community-based advocacy and mobilization will be discussed.