By Laurie Friedman, assistant professor in the School of Social Work
Seven judges, a key prosecutor and several municipal officials will be elected in Pennsylvania tomorrow. It’s an “off-year” election, and fewer than a quarter of registered voters are likely to show up at the polls. But, as social workers—advocates for our clients, our communities and our society—we have a responsibility to cast our votes.
Every day, we see firsthand results of judicial rulings, municipal decisions and political trends. For some of us, those results seal the fate of the parentless child we met yesterday, the elderly individual who can’t afford her medication and the teenager who was arrested. Last month, for instance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled the Commonwealth Court’s 2015 decision to throw out a lawsuit that would determine whether funding inequities between school districts violate the equal-protection provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the state’s obligation to provide students with a “thorough and efficient system” of education.
We make a difference every day on the clock, but only every few years can we cast a vote that shapes our society. The founders and leaders of our field recognized this responsibility. We are privileged to bear witness to the challenges individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities face, and we see daily the inequities born of low-quality public services—inequities that inevitably affect everyone’s quality of life. We recognize that we are all interconnected and joined through human relationships.
At the School of Social Work, our mission of societal transformation is infused into all aspects of our curriculum. Both undergraduate and graduate students take at least two policy courses, and our courses emphasize social welfare policy in the United States as the foundation on which we strengthen and develop our skills to participate in the policy-making process. Social work education emphasizes the ability to separate our personal and professional lives, and I encourage you to vote based on personal values and interests. But for many of us, it becomes difficult to separate our interests from those of the people and communities we become so intimately connected to.
Off-year elections may not be as exciting as the quadrennial presidential and gubernatorial elections, but they’re easily as important to social welfare. Counties, local townships and school boards make decisions that impact daily life, such as street repairs, trash pickup and recycling, school policies and tax decisions. Local governing boards frequently serve as stepping stones for future runs for state and national offices. Judges and prosecutors, in particular, hold direct power over the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society, those individuals we as social workers are especially pledged to serve.
Please take 10 minutes to research your local elections. The Committee of Seventy is a great resource with data to help compare candidates and research issues. Read the local newspaper to learn more about the candidates. For social workers, the National Association of Social Workers Pennsylvania Chapter (NASW-PA) Political Action for Candidate Election (PACE) Committee has endorsed a slate of candidates, which you can read about online.
Yes, voter turnout will be low—just 25 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia voted in 2015, and just 10 percent in Delaware County voted. But, that is not an excuse. It is an opportunity and a chance to amplify our influence. Local elections are often decided by fewer than 100 votes; every vote matters.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday; consider offering a neighbor a ride or encouraging family and friends to vote.
Voting is a chance for all of us to take half an hour and use our vote for officials who will truly work with us, as each of us pledged in the NASW Code of Ethics, to “advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”