In an election where more Americans voted than ever before and images of voting lines stretching several city blocks flooded the media, polling site volunteers were as important as ever to keep things running smoothly and keep voters safe.
Students from the UConn School of Social Work and the UConn Hartford Power Voting Corps, an initiative of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work led by adjunct professor and doctoral candidate Angela Bellas and Institute interns Meg Wolfe and Taylor Tucker, spent Election Day at the Grace Lutheran Church polling location in Hartford, which was widely covered on local news as having the longest wait in the city.
For five hours, students provided hot chocolate, coffee, snacks, crayons, hand warmers, and stickers to the hundreds of Hartford voters who in some cases waited hours to vote in the cold, according to Humphreys Institute director Tanya Rhodes Smith. The student volunteers answered questions, looked up polling sites for unsure voters, and ensured individuals with disabilities had accommodations to vote.
“Voters were grateful,” Rhodes Smith says. “Some said the volunteers were the reason they stayed in line.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic spurring broader access to mail-in or absentee voting as well as restrictions on polling site staffing, and a divided electorate driven to the polls in higher numbers than ever before, the 2020 presidential election relied on engaged volunteers to ensure everyone was able to cast their ballots.
Along with School of Social Work doctoral student Cindy Dubuque-Gallo ’10 MSW and others, Rhodes Smith served as a poll monitor with nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Common Cause’s “Election Protection” program.
“The polling site was clearly understaffed,” Rhodes Smith says.
When the monitors realized people were leaving the line because of the wait, they alerted the state Election Day hotline and NBC Connecticut, which had a crew on site providing coverage. Additionally, the monitors worked to get more lighting at the polling place and its parking lot as day turned to night.
“It was wonderful to see additional poll workers show up very quickly after we made those calls,” Rhodes Smith said.
Funded by a Hartford Foundation for Public Giving grant, the UConn Hartford Power Voting Corps worked throughout the past several months to get out the vote. Led by Bellas, students ran voter registration drives at Wheeler Clinic, mobilized voters through Connecticut Students for a Dream phone banks, texted voters through an effort led by doctoral candidate Alberto Cifuentes Jr., visited undergraduate classrooms at UConn Hartford to encourage students to vote, and participated in election protection trainings.
“The [Corps] has been working hard all semester to build capacity, relationships, and voting power. Our core members have been meeting weekly to train up and take action to increase civic literacy and to get out the vote within our UConn Hartford community and in the greater Hartford community,” says Bellas. “Our work is centered on our vision for a healthy, more inclusive democracy, which can only exist with fair and free elections. I am proud to be a part of this student-driven initiative.”
“We all agreed on Election Day that this is a tradition that needs to continue in some way,” Rhodes Smith says.
The Nancy A. Humphreys Institute works to increase the political participation and power of social workers and the communities they serve so public policy reflects the profession’s values and commitment to social justice. The Institute is a co-founder and leader of the National Social Work Mobilization Campaign, which works to integrate nonpartisan voter engagement into social work education and practice. Learn more about the campaign at VotingIsSocialWork.org.