When I was a welfare recipient, I always felt like the caseworker on the other side of the desk had a lot of power to affect my life. There were all sorts of decisions made right there, on the spot, that might mean my benefits could be cut off or maybe I wouldn’t be able to get into a job training program that offered me something more than a dead-end job.
Going to the welfare office, to my kids’ schools, or to the emergency room was always a reminder that somebody on the other side of the desk had the power to say yes or no, to open doors or close them, to tell me I qualify or I don’t.
And, somehow it always had something to do with papers and forms I filled out, and lots of times I heard I didn’t fill them out the right way, or I didn’t file them on time. And, then there were the times I was told I just don’t qualify and I didn’t know why.
I remembered those feelings of coming face to face with someone who seemed to have a lot of power over me in our current voter engagement work with adults enrolled in adult literacy, GED and adult diploma programs in many states around the country. It turns out a lot of people who have never voted before have a perspective that’s relevant to recent Supreme Court decisions and current political discussions about why lots of low-income people do not vote.
We teach a strategy that helps people learn to focus on key decisions and ask their own questions. Those are two powerful skills, but not ones that lots of people have a chance to learn how to use. But, when they start focusing on decisions that affect them and start asking their own questions, they identify problems and concerns that can teach us a lot about the challenges they face. Listen to questions that have been asked in workshops near the Mexican border in Arizona and near the Canadian border in New Hampshire.
Here’s the scenario they consider: Imagine it’s the day before the election in November. What questions do you have about actually voting?
Their questions, in their own words and spelling, include: Can any-one vote? How many chances do we have? What do you need to vote? Will there be security? Do you have I.D.? what kind of I.D? Were are the locate, and if we have some help for information? Can I bring my children with me? What if I can’t get off work? If I’m working in that time, how am I going to vote? Do I have to regester in order to vote? Can we vote here in the classroom? What is the day of the election?
Then, towards the end, these questions came up: What if I don’t know what to do? What if I make a mistake? Will I get punished if I do it wrong?
Voting, it turns, can feel like one more encounter with some public system; and if you’ve suffered the consequences of not knowing how other systems work, or not knowing quite how to fill out the form, or not doing it on time, then, you might feel it’s better to just stay away from the voting booth.
These feelings and fears are major obstacles to voting. They don’t get much attention. Can something be done about them?
We need to invest in people who have not voted before; offer them not only information about voting procedures, but also give them a chance to learn how to ask their own questions.
We’ve seen in community after community, Latino, White, African-American, rural and urban, that asking questions can help people figure things out for themselves, reach their own conclusions about why voting is important, and identify the information they want to get. By asking their own questions, they feel more prepared to vote and that helps them overcome their fears of one more encounter with a public system.
And, altogether, they wind up feeling a much greater sense of urgency about the need to vote and have a say in the election.
Jean, a participant in a job training program in New Hampshire, participated in a Right Question Project workshop and said: I see now that if I don’t vote, other people will just keep on making decisions for me.