“Voting is receiving a lot of attention right now. Between the political climate and the uncertainty and apprehension caused by Covid-19, people are concerned that their vote won’t be counted, or that it will be unsafe to vote,” wrote Brian Gallagher, President and CEO of United Way Worldwide, in a recent blog post. And yet, voting is one key way to better our communities. As Gallagher put it, voting should “be the capstone of your civic activities.”
For United Way of Story County, it is our vision to improve the quality of life of every person in our community. We do so through our philanthropic work, raising dollars to fund efforts in our pillar areas of health, education, and financial stability. We do so through mobilizing volunteers through initiatives such as our countywide Day of Caring. But we also do so through advocacy - of which voting is one key part.
With our votes, we can positively impact decisions being made in and for our communities. For example:
- Health - Your vote makes a difference in how much funding is allocated for vital services like mental health and nutrition programs for seniors and kids. Your vote can strengthen laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensures public spaces are accessible for all community members.
- Education - Your vote helps decide educational policy and funding levels, both of which directly impact our children/grandchildren/loved ones, teachers, and staff in local school districts.
- Financial Stability - Your vote helps to determine eligibility requirements and funding levels for the emergency programs many rely on for basic needs, especially in tough economic times like the coronavirus pandemic (ex/ SNAP-Food Assistance, Unemployment, etc.) Your vote impacts other decisions, such as whether financial literacy education is provided in our schools, colleges, and workplaces.
Yet, in spite of voting’s impact, voter participation rates are surprisingly low. According to Gallagher, “In the U.S., less than 56 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots during the 2016 Presidential Election. Voting participation is even lower in non-Presidential years and drops further as you consider elections for local offices.” In data from the Iowa Secretary of State, Story County boasts a higher average, with 74.12% of total voters having turned out for the 2016 General Election. Yet, when disaggregated, we see some demographics were less well-represented at the polls. For example, in Story County, 25-34 year olds were less likely to vote than any other age group (at only 47.14% turnout). There also were significant differences in voter turnout by race, ethnicity, and income levels. For example, the Census reports that nationally, 47.6% of Hispanic/Latinx voters voted in the 2016 General Election, compared to 65.3% for White non-Hispanics.
Why does this happen? Gallagher puts it well when he states, “Our current system leaves far too many out of the political process. Every person in every community should be able to easily vote and make sure their voice is heard when it comes to important, life-affecting decisions.” Yet, there are many systemic barriers, both formal and informal forms of disenfranchisement. There are, as Gallagher points out, “unacceptable barriers to registering to vote, casting one’s ballot or having it properly counted.” Furthermore, there are barriers borne of poverty: For example, a comprehensive Caltech/MIT study found that a number of practical issues stand in the way of low-income individuals voting, including transportation issues, busy schedules, and challenges with getting the appropriate ID or registering. We know coronavirus only amplifies these barriers.
At United Way of Story County, we urge each one of you to register to vote, to help register neighbors and others who have not voted, and to make sure to cast your vote on - or before! - Tuesday, November 3. And don’t stop there: join with us in ongoing advocacy. As Gallagher notes: “For over 130 years, United Way has brought together leaders in communities to solve problems in a non-partisan manner. Civic engagement is at the heart of what we do, and today, more than ever, engaging people to vote and stay involved is fundamental to solving our society’s most challenging problems and creating strong, equitable and resilient communities.”