Dozens of Brown School students, staff and faculty volunteered at polls across the St. Louis region November 3, helping voters to cast their ballots in what would turn out to be the largest vote total in U.S. history and the highest turnout rate since 1900. Heavy voting before Election Day meant the polls weren’t as crowded as had been feared, but volunteers played a key role in keeping lines moving and answering voter questions, a job that proved especially rewarding for many first-time poll workers.
“Oh my gosh, it was the best volunteer experience I’ve ever had,” said Sarah Mosby, MSW ’22, who served as an election monitor to help speed the lines of voters at an elementary school in St. Louis. “I met great people throughout the experience, including a man in his 80s who was voting for the first time,” added Mosby, who was recently admitted to the Graduate Policy Scholar program. “It was extraordinarily moving – our community in action.”
The Inclusive Voting: Key to Democracy Project was headed by Gena McClendon, director of the Center for Social Development’s Voter Access and Engagement Initiative, and Cynthia D. Williams, Assistant Dean, Office of Community Partnerships. The St. Louis Area Voting Initiative and the St. Louis Area Election Protection Coalition partnered with CSD for the election protection training and volunteer recruitment as poll workers, election monitors.
“For the most part, things went well,” said McClendon, who praised the Brown School and Dean Mary McKay for backing the effort.
McClendon said one purpose of the initiative was to engage social work and public health students with other organizations in protecting the right to vote. “We’re introducing them to the idea that they’re making history, so they will continue to do this,” she said. “They’ll use this exercise as part of their professional development and part of their profession.”
Many students, she said, are so focused on their clinical work that they don’t understand the connection between their work and voting. McClendon will be making that connection to students next semester in a class she’ll be teaching: Voting, Racism and the Promise of Democracy.”
The relevance of voting to social work was brought home years ago to Trish Kohl, associate professor at the Brown School who volunteered as a poll monitor at a community center in Florissant. “I wasn’t personally civically engaged early in my career working for a non-profit mental health agency. But a few years into it, I began seeing the impact of policies on families, recognizing the systemic changes that need to happen.”
“It is probably my years of work as a social worker that made it so important to me to work at the polls this year,” she said. “I believe it is critically important for social workers to engage in voting rights and ensuring people have the opportunity to vote.”
For Sicong (Summer) Sun, a PhD student from China, working as a poll monitor at a St. Louis elementary school was her first in-person experience inside the American voting process. “I was glad to see great voter turnout, especially young people and communities of color,” she said. “They showed up and made their voices heard.” She said her focus on the social determinants of health and financial capability as a research associate at CSD will be strengthened by the experience.
Like Sun, Annie LaFleur’s polling experience was a new one. LaFleur, MSW ’21, came to the Brown School from Oregon, where she had only voted by mail. Her experience at the Better Family Life Center in St. Louis was an eye-opener. “I had never been to a polling place before,” she said. “I wanted the experience to see what it would be like. I’m so glad I did it. I felt I was part of something bigger,” said LaFleur, whose concentration is mental health.
The experience gave many first-time volunteers a new appreciation for poll workers. Kevin Brown, MSW ’21, worked a 14-hour shift at an elementary school in St. Louis. “It’s exhausting and consumes the whole day,” he said. “But I would do it again. Ultimately it felt like I was serving a useful function. It was inspiring to see that many voters exercising their right to vote.”
Several students said the high-pressure, divisive nature of the 2020 elections encouraged them to volunteer, as did the pandemic.
“This year is different,” said Madelyn Brandt, MSW ’22, who worked as a monitor at a community center in Florissant. “Older poll workers were not able to be there due to the pandemic. I wanted to get involved. It was really cool volunteering with election protection. I think our presence across the nation helped people feel more comfortable. A lot of people were fearful.”
The potential danger for poll workers was brought home to Brandt in August, when she volunteered during the primary election at a polling place in her home community of St. Charles County. She became alarmed when poll workers were not required to wear masks and alerted a local TV station after receiving an e-mail from county election officials asking poll workers to “act surprised” if voters asked them to wear a mask. Outrage over the ensuing TV story, which featured Brandt, caused authorities to reverse their policy and require masking. But on Nov. 3, a poll worker who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 reported to work in the county for a full-shift anyway, and died later that day.
“I’m hoping that the new masking policy kept this person from spreading their COVID, or limited the spread,” Brandt said.
Brandt, who didn’t vote until 2016, said she began to get more engaged in part due to her concentration in domestic social and economic development, with a specialty in policy. She thinks greater civic engagement is a trend in the field. “A lot of social workers are becoming more active in their communities,” she said.
One reason for that activity is its relative lack of stress compared that which many social workers face on a daily basis, said Ryan Lindsay, an associate professor of practice and assistant dean for social work at the Brown School who volunteered after running into McClendon at a Sam’s Club. “It’s a function of how exhausted and burned out social workers are in general,” he said. “They’re working trying to fix problems they cannot solve but which create significant pain for people. They don’t have a lot left to give, but this is something they can give. They just have to show up and say, ‘Tell me what to do.’”
Lindsay said his experience at a St. Louis middle school was “super rewarding,” especially a conversation with a 93-year-old survivor of the bombings of London during World War II. “I’m definitely going to sign up for this again. This gave me an opportunity to exercise my social-justice muscle,” he said. An added benefit, he said, was the opportunity to interact with people in person.
“I haven’t been in any place I’ve seen so many humans since the pandemic started,” he said. “It was invigorating.”