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Local Elections and Civic Engagement in Social Work
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Local Elections and Civic Engagement in Social Work

By Krista Woods

October 24, 2019


With as much media attention that exists centered on national races—not to mention the fact that campaign seasons seem to be starting earlier and earlier with every cycle—it may be hard to think about any other elections. However, there is a much larger election landscape than just the national offices. On a bit of a smaller scale there are state elections for determining the state legislators and governors. State races generally see a larger turnout as well, although they are not as large as turnout rates for national races. But what about local elections? Mayors and city councils are pretty well-known as local leaders, but local elections encompass a much wider array of different positions and can look very different in each of their respective locations. With data showing extremely low turnout rates for local elections, it is important that social workers understand the importance of their own participation and the ways in which they can empower their clients to participate.

In this article, we will explore recent trends in voter turnout in local elections, potential reasons for and issues raised by these trends, and ways in which social workers can engage themselves as individuals as well as engage their clients. Before going deeper into the arena of local elections, it is necessary to understand that each municipality will look different in its local government structures as compared to national, state, and other local governments, so there may be some differences in the effects of local elections depending on where one lives. Therefore, it is necessary to think critically about the specific problems that may exist in individual communities and use the information provided here as a beginning for future civic engagement.


National, State, and Local Governments

Each level of government is responsible for different aspects of our governance. The federal government is much more involved in issues that must be controlled at a wider scope, such as immigration and citizenship laws, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, and Civil Rights laws (, 2019). These issues involve laws that are applicable to every person residing and working within the country and territories. They tend to be broader issues—involving broader legislation—than what may be found in state and local governments, but federal laws and regulations must be followed by the state and local governments when they make their own laws and regulations. Additionally, if there is no specific federal law, the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gives the power to the states.

State—and territory—governments, while still considerably large, have a much smaller scope and are responsible for only what occurs within their state or territorial boundaries. State governments are involved in more specialized and regional issues, such as drivers’ licenses, marriages and divorces, and property laws (, 2019; The White House, 2019). While they must adhere to federal rules and regulations, states are able to create more detailed legislation for how to implement specific rules and programs than the federal level, and can demonstrate differences in resources, needs, and ideologies between the states (, 2019).

Finally, local governments have the smallest scope of governance and are subject to the rules and regulations of both federal and state governments. The issues tackled by local governments involve things such as waste management, parks and recreation, zoning laws, and rent laws (, 2019; The White House, 2019). Similar to how rules and regulations made at the state and federal levels of governments differ, the rules and regulations made at a local level can be much more specific and restrictive than state or federal rules and regulations, even though the power and authority of the government is less than that of the state and federal governments. The issues addressed are ones that we as citizens and residents must deal with every day, and while many of them are necessities, they can and often do have direct impacts on quality of life for the people living there.

Local governing bodies also look different from state and federal governments because they also include School Boards/Boards of Education, Boards of Elections, and other special government districts that may be designed to handle a single specific issue or very small set of issues within a specific county or municipality (Oliver, Ha, and Callen, 2012). It is not possible to describe every local governing body within this article, so local governance and elections are referred to broadly with attention to trends and ideas that can be applied despite potential and inherent differences. However, it is very important for residents to know the structure and function of each governing body in their municipality to understand exactly how they and others within their communities may be impacted.


Voter Turnout in Local Elections

Voter turnout is simply the number of people who participate in elections, but that single number does not provide much useful information. To make this number meaningful and understand its context, it is often compared to the number of people who are of voting age (Voting Age Population, VAP) and the number of people who are eligible to vote (Voting Eligible Population, VEP)—which does not count individuals with felonies for certain states, non-citizen residents, and individuals who are legally deemed mentally incapacitated and incapable by a probate judge (DeSilver, 2018;MIT Election Data Lab, 2019; United States Election Project, 2019). In Ohio, individuals with felony convictionscanstill vote, so that is not a factor here! The VEP will always be smaller than the VAP, and the number of registered voters will always be smaller than the VEP. Therefore, it is important to know which is being used when speaking about voter turnout because it can affect the context of the data.

In the United States overall, voter turnout is relatively low when compared to other countries. In the 2016 presidential election, over 85% of registered voters participated, which sounds like a high turnout. However, just over half of the VAP and 60% of the VEP voted (DeSilver, 2018; Di Carlo, 2018). When looking specifically at local elections, where some turnout rates have been less than 10% of the VEP, the low turnout trend is even more concerning than it may be in national elections (Capps, 2019; Oliver, Ha, and Callen, 2012). Even among registered voters, turnout for the bigger local elections—those for mayoral and city council seats—rarely reached more than 40% (Warshaw, 2019). If the local elections occur simultaneously to state and national elections, turnout can be higher because more people are inclined to vote in elections of larger scope—and by convenience will then vote in local elections. However, they frequently do not happen at the same time, so bumps when they do happen are not significant to the overall turnout in local elections (Capps, 2019;MIT Election Data Lab, 2019; Oliver, Ha, and Callen, 2012).


Reasons for Low Voter Turnout and Significance

The reasons for low turnout are not entirely agreed upon by everyone who has studied this trend. Some of the proposed reasons that people do not vote include lack of media coverage of local elections, purposefully scheduling local elections at odd times, lack of interest in local politics, barriers to registering to vote, and barriers to accessing polling locations (Di Carlo, 2018; Root and Kennedy, 2018; U.S. Vote Foundation, 2017; Waldman, 2019; Warshaw, 2019). There is also evidence that some demographic aspects are strongly correlated with who participates in voting as well, with individuals of racial and ethnic minorities and lower socioeconomic groups voting at much lower rates than wealthy, white individuals, and in communities with higher rates of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity, this is even more pronounced than in communities with relatively homogenous demographics (MIT Election Data Lab, 2019;Oliver, Ha, and Callen, 2012).

If high voter turnout signifies a healthy democracy, then low turnout signifies room for improvement. If the population that voted in a specific election were equally representative of the population of the municipality or community, then low voter turnout would not necessarily be an issue for the outcome of that single election. However, the widespread low voter turnout points to a general lack of civic engagement, which is incredibly problematic when we consider the basis for our democracy.

Based on the current understandings of why people may not vote and who does and does not vote, these factors can be incredibly significant because they suggest there is, in fact, not equal representation of interests in local elections. In general, greater attention and resources will be given to the groups and communities that have been active in voting because they will be the ones responsible for the results of the elections (Mizrahi and Abramovitz, 2018; Oliver, Ha, and Callen, 2012). If only specific groups are voting, the results of elections can be very biased and could have highly negative consequences for the populations who do not vote, especially when the elections are for local officials who have an immediate impact on the daily lives of their constituents.

Civic involvement, specifically voting, has also been linked to many psychological benefits for participants. The benefits include better overall mental health outcomes, greater feelings of self-efficacy, and stronger social connections (Mizrahi and Abramovitz, 2018). When large numbers of already vulnerable people are not participating in this activity, they cannot gain the benefits that their voting counterparts gain. This should be of particular concern to social workers because the mental health of clients is of such importance to their overall well-being.

Additionally, because voting is a right and having a voice within the civic process can provide many benefits to everyone, the fact that there are barriers to individuals who may be seeking to participate in their elections may in some instances suggest a Civil Rights issue (U.S. Vote Foundation, 2017). Because many movements for Civil Rights started as local movements, social workers must be concerned with how local elections and local governments may be responsible for shaping future state and federal policies.


Responsibilities of the Social Work Professional

For social workers, there is an expectation of civic engagement and political participation. Section 6.04(a) of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics states that “Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully” (National Association of Social Workers, 2017).At its most basic level, engagement in social and political action can and should include exercising the right to vote in all levels of elections. Social workers possess a unique position within their communities that allows them to understand the impacts of policy choices on the most vulnerable populations. By voting in elections and being knowledgeable about issues pertaining to the communities in which they and their clients live, social workers utilize that right and can provide a voice for not only themselves but for vulnerable populations within their communities as well. Social workers already vote at higher rates than other professions, which is good news because it suggests that social workers are already aware of and comfortable with this aspect of their responsibility in political engagement (Rome and Hoechstetter, 2010).

Social workers also have a responsibility to empower their clients in all aspects of their life, including politically (Hardina, 2003). As discussed previously, some of the suggested reasons for low voter engagement have been barriers to registration, to accessing voting locations, or both. Additionally, there may be low civic knowledge that prevents individuals from fully understanding the impacts of voting and what voting really means. In practice, social workers may experience some hesitancy to discuss politics and upcoming elections with clients, but doing so may lead to greater empowerment for their clients who could potentially feel more confident and prepared to participate (Hardina, 2003).

There are many different groups and social work organizations that have successfully engaged their clients in voter mobilization campaigns using a number of strategies.Educating clients about what it means to be a voter, the importance of their participation in the voting process, and where they can find polling locations are all methods by which social workers can engage their clients to be more empowered to participate in the voting process (Mizrahi and Abramovitz, 2018). A number of resources are available for social workers interested in learning more about politically empowering clients and mobilizing voters through different groups and movements such as Voting Is Social Work, Nonprofit VOTE, and the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign (Hardina, 2003;Mizrahi and Abramovitz, 2018; Nonprofit VOTE, 2019;University of Connecticut School of Social Work, 2018). The National Association of Social Work Ohio Chapter (NASW Ohio) also provides an educational webinar on Voter Engagement. This recorded webinar is available to members on the NASW Ohiowebsite.



Voting in local elections, particularly for underrepresented, vulnerable, and disenfranchised populations, is incredibly important for the well-being of these groups as well as the community as a whole. Social workers are uniquely prepared to have the knowledge and skills to help empower these groups to become active voters, and furthermore, are expected to engage in political activity as part of the profession. A number of strategies exist to increase voter turnout, but the very first step in this endeavor must be to encourage clients to register to vote in order to increase their ability to participate. To create a more equitable society, voices must be heard, and with the impact of local elections being more immediately felt, voter engagement and mobilization must start closer to home.

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