Restore the Vote for Health Equity

By Martha Ockenfels-Martinez

Photo: Unity/Dignity/Power stickers from the National Domestic Workers Alliance

With the presidential election looming on the horizon, I wanted to write a blog post about how important voting is for self-care and community health. While it’s not something that comes up in the doctor’s office, the act of voting itself might be quite important for our health.

Wait. What?

Voting is one way we can practice our power

When we practice our power and agency as individuals — that is, when we are in positions to make choices about how we live our lives—we benefit mentally, emotionally, and physically. Some researchers call this self-efficacy, others call it autonomy, and my mentor calls it control over destiny. I’ve been calling it practicing our power. Spiritual philosophers also lift up a similar concept — Caroline Myss talks about personal power as a needed ingredient for finding wholeness and health.

Researchers have found evidence of the health boosting effects of having a choice, of practicing power, in various studies. One famous study by Sir Michael Marmot found that people in the same social class had different health outcomes based on how much agency and choice they had at their jobs. People that had more autonomy in their jobs, had better health.

On the flip side, recent research has shown that people with too much power lose critical emotional skills. Their mental health and emotional health suffers with the excess unchecked power, even causing their brains to change.

Power is best shared — which is why community organizers and researchers alike uplift the concepts of the power of the people, community empowerment, and collective agency.

Who gets to vote, though?

The more we think about voting as an important element for a healthy life, the more we have to think about who is missing out completely from this health-promoting practice — the millions of people in prison, on probation and parole, and in jails across the country. Too many loved ones — partners, parents, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, and friends — are disenfranchised. They’ve had their votes taken from them.

People become disenfranchised in many states when they go into prison. But this isn’t the way it has to be. In the states of Vermont and Maine as well as in many other countries — like Canada and Norway — a person never loses their right to vote while incarcerated. Taking away someone’s right to vote when they are in prison is a continuation of the racist and sexist legacy of voter disenfranchisement in this country. It isn’t necessary to remove someone’s right to vote.

As a US-international elections monitor recently shared in a New York Times op-ed:

“The United States is an outlier. Its suppression of voting rights for more than 6.1 million people with current or former felony convictions violates human rights and weakens our democracy.”

Taking away the right to vote from people in prison is just one way folks are disenfranchised. Many others across the country have had their vote taken from them through voter suppression, which includes voter roll purges, redistricting, voter ID laws, and the way people in prison are counted in the census.

Disenfranchisement affects us all

Studies have found that disenfranchisement and inequalities affect our entire society. Those who live in states with higher voting inequality are more likely to have poorer self-rated health than people living in states with more voter equality. In states that had more equality in voting participation, people had better self-rated health. Another study found that the disenfranchisement of the African American community can predict Black voter turnout — meaning, refusing the vote to some folks in the community affects the whole community’s ability (or perhaps want) to engage in our democracy.

Another study found that in states with more inequity in power (with voter turnout as one of the measures of power), there was more environmental degradation and worse health impacts for people.

In a time where the term ‘health equity’ has become a catch-phrase and an important goal for nonprofits, movements, and funders alike, we need to be connecting the dots between which communities experience health inequities and which communities have been denied the vote — for these are often the same.

Racial inequities are rampant in the criminal legal system. For example, roughly 33% of those in prison are Black, although only 12% of the United States population is Black. And the Native American population similarly is overrepresented in the criminal legal system for reasons related to racial profiling, targeting, and the institutional and systemic racism baked into our country’s legal proceedings. The criminal legal system targets Black, Brown, Native, and poor communities.

Health equity work requires restoring voting rights

Restoring the vote is key for our collective work towards health equity. And it’s crucial for our collective humanity. If we care about creating a world where every soul has good health — we need to make sure everyone has access to the vote.

  • Vote for state and national candidates that will restore the vote for people in prison.
  • Vote against voter ID laws that disenfranchise people. And if you live in a state with strict voter ID laws, support organizing efforts to make sure everyone can vote.
  • Make sure all people in your community have the resources they need to fully participate in voting. This includes access to ballots, the polls, voter guides, etc. This also includes making sure folks in jail or prison who are eligible to vote, have access to voting resources and polls. Check out what Chicago is doing to make sure all folks who can vote have access by making a local jail a polling place.
  • Register people to vote in public health spaces like hospitals, community centers, and clinics. In 2008 the nonpartisan Rx: Vote Campaign registered twenty-six thousand voters at clinics and community health centers nationwide.
  • Support the District of Columbia’s statehood. The entire District of Columbia is disenfranchised. Learn more here about how this a matter of racial justice for the 50% Black district, and call your congressperson to voice your support for legislation D.C. You can also tell your congressperson to support the legislation D.C. Councilmember Robert C. White Jr. has introduced to restore the vote for people currently in prison in D.C.
  • Support efforts to lower the national voting age to 16. check out Vote16USA’s website to see if you can support youth in your region of the country who are working to fold 16 and 17 year olds into the voting population.
  • If you’re a resident in California call your senator and ask them to vote for ACA 6. And you can check out other ways you can support at Free The Vote’s website. Once ACA 6 passes in the legislature, Californians will be able to vote on the ballot on this measure to restore the right to vote for Californians on parole.
  • If you’re a resident in Minnesota call and tell your senator, your representative, and your governor to vote yes for Restore the Vote (HF40).
  • If you’re a resident in the state of Massachusetts you can support the work the coalition MassPOWER is doing to get a question on the ballot to restore the right to vote for people in prison. More info here.
  • If you’re a resident of Florida, call your state representatives and tell them you support voter rights, and that they should remove the modern poll tax that is preventing people from voting.
  • If you’re a resident in Iowa, check out the great work InsideOut Reentry is doing to restore the vote and call your elected officials and ask them to support this bipartisan issue.
  • If you’re a resident of Tennessee, contact your local and state representatives urging them to support HB 0547 to restore the vote to people.

What is your state doing to increase voter enfranchisement? Let us know here in the comments!


Martha Ockenfels-Martinez is a Research Associate at Human Impact Partners. She supports the research needs of community partners across the country that are advancing equity and justice. She brings her background in local and state policymaking, community organizing, and advocacy to her work at HIP.

📌 Did you know? Human Impact Partners provides health equity capacity building to public health organizations. Contact us to learn more about our offerings at info[at]humanimpact.org.

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