In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states, mostly in the south, to change their election laws without prior federal approval.
The ruling opened a floodgate. Texas, for instance, quickly announced that a previously blocked voter-identification law would go into effect immediately, adding that redistricting maps there would no longer require federal approval. In the past five years, restrictive voting laws have been enacted in more than a dozen states.
From Washington University in St. Louis comes the new Voter Access and Engagement initiative to address these issues. Voter Access and Engagement (VAE) is a nonpartisan partnership that connects public, nonprofit and private-sector organizations in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and will later extend through the state of Missouri and beyond. The Brown School project, part of its Center for Social Development’s focus on Civic Engagement and Service, aims to strengthen democracy by increasing access and participation in the electoral process.
VAE also emphasizes democracy content in social work education. Increasing the knowledge and skills of social work graduates will strengthen the voices of vulnerable clients, said Gena Gunn McClendon, VAE project director.
McClendon has broad experience in community engagement in St. Louis and in social work education nationally. As project director of the Financial Capability and Asset Building initiative at the Center for Social Development (CSD), she provides leadership in renewing social work education, including strong working partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“Historically, social work has stood for — and fought for — improving the well-being of individuals and families, advancing human rights, defining and safeguarding social protections, and ensuring for everyone the fundamental opportunity to participate as part of the whole,” McClendon said.
St. Louis as test site
St. Louis is a good pilot site to address voting issues. National and international spotlights have illuminated disturbing conditions in Ferguson, Mo., where city courts and the police have systematically oppressed African American citizens.
The city’s narrative also includes precedent-setting Supreme Court civil rights cases that originated in St. Louis, among them Dred Scott v. Sandford, Gaines v. Canada and Shelley v. Kraemer.
VAE’s work in Missouri, which in the past has been a swing state during elections, adds more context to the project. As a challenge to full participation in voting, Missouri has adopted a photo ID law that went into effect in June 2017. To overcome the effects of this law and other repressive measures, the VAE team expect stronger voter access programs to be necessary.
Outside of St. Louis and Missouri, VAE is building alliances with academic institutions and nonprofits across states in the heartland. These include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. VAE participants will share knowledge about best practices and opportunities to overcome restrictive voting measures.
“We are pleased to begin this work on Voter Access and Engagement,” said Michael Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor and director of the CSD. “At this time in the nation’s history, strengthening democracy is an important goal. VAE is one of the best ways CSD can use applied social research for positive change.”