Civic Engagement

People who volunteer, vote, and are involved in community groups experience better mental and physical health. Communities that engage in these ways have higher levels of trust, social community bonds, and better sharing of community resources. In fact, the American Medical Association declared in 2022 that voting, an important part of civic participation, is a social factor that drives health outcomes. Other organizations, in frameworks like Healthy People 2030 and Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience, have acknowledged that participating in voting, volunteering, and community groups improves the health of individuals and populations.  

Civic engagement can include non-political activities like volunteering in your community, joining a local sports team, or serving on your local County Health Council. While these activities may support your own interests, they can also support the broader interests of the community and can be a powerful tool for building community connections and gaining momentum for change.  When underserved groups participate in these activities, they can share their voice when it’s time to make decisions. This helps the development of a healthy, strong local democracy. 

Civic Engagement - 1
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Good For You - Volunteering

Voting builds social inclusion and community belonging.  Active civic participation helps constituents to feel heard and see that their government is willing and able to address the issues they care about,  helping communities to see themselves as a part of something bigger.

Mental well-being has been associated with civic engagement. When people believe they have the ability to impact their own environment, that influences their civic engagement and mental wellness.  

People who participate in civic activities like voting, volunteering, and joining community organizations are more likely to report that they have good or very good health than people with a lower level of participation.  Young adults who engage in volunteering, voting or activism are more likely to have a higher income and education later in life than those who do not. Income and education are known to influence health outcomes by affecting access to health-related resources, like healthcare, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and healthy food.  

Expanded voter participation is associated with better public health outcomes.  The Health and Democracy Index shows the correlation between state voting policies, level of civic participation, and population health.   

Democracy Index

Tennessee has several opportunities to expand voter participation by adopting policies that are more engaging for minority, rural, and disabled individuals.  These policies will in turn improve the overall health of Tennesseans.   

Policy reforms that have been shown to increase voter participation include:  

  • Increasing access to absentee voting. 
  • Convenience voting like curbside voting, early in-person absentee voting, addition of more voting centers, and allowing same day voter registration.   
  • Allowing voters to use non-state or federally issued ID to vote or increase the number of government offices and officials that can create a picture ID that is sufficient for voting reasons.  

A stronger, more inclusive democracy means a healthier, more engaged public. Tennessee is currently ranked 44th in the nation in overall health.  Efforts to increase voter participation in our state have the potential to improve overall health outcomes and strengthen community engagement, leading to a healthier, more resilient Tennessee.   

The relationship between voting and health outcomes is complex. People from underserved backgrounds are more likely to be affected by poor health and face greater barriers to voting access. Because of this, low-income, minority, rural, and other underserved populations vote less and have less political power. This creates a cycle as worsened health leads to less civic engagement, which in turn impacts health outcomes, leaving these populations unheard and overlooked when it comes time to vote.  The figure below provides some examples of the various individual, interpersonal, and contextual factors that can act as barriers to becoming civically involved.   

Predictors of Civic Participation

Many communities face increased barriers in access to having their voices heard by elected officials through the ballot box or other forms of civic engagement.  In Tennessee, those who live in rural areas, racial and ethnic minority groups, formerly incarcerated individuals, women, and individuals with disabilities face inequitable barriers to representation.   58 of the 95 counties in the state do not have a location where you can get a photo ID which is required to vote.  Accessibility for voters with disabilities in many ways acts as a signal for how easy it is to access the ballot box for all voters.  Secure, barrier-free polling places improve access for voters with disabilities, while protecting and assisting all voters.  25 percent of Tennesseans are estimated to have a disability, yet 87 percent of voting locations had at least one physical access barrier to casting a vote on election day in 2016.  

ID Requirements
Poll Site Barriers

Currently, 1 out of every 5 Black Tennesseans and 1 out of every 10 Latino Tennesseans cannot vote due to justice system involvement or former incarceration.  Tennessee is the only state that requires being current on child support for the restoration of a person’s voting rights.  People who are current on their payment plans cannot vote if they have ever fallen behind in the past.  

Former Incarceration
Restoration of Voting Rights

Activities and Programs: Evidence-informed, actionable, short-term steps that collaborative groups can take to address priority areas.

Policy and Systems Change: Systems change refers to how organizations or programs — such as school systems or health systems — are connected and work together to improve conditions to make change that lasts. This section contains evidence-informed, actionable, long-term steps that collaborative groups can take to address priority areas.

  • Apply to serve as a poll worker and register people to vote at health fairs and other community events. 
  • Participate in public meetings like school board meetings, city board meetings, or HOA meetings — these meetings often result in decisions that will most impact people on a day-to-day basis. 
  • Volunteer in the community or join a local organization or sports team. 
  • Talk with your neighbors, using tools like deep canvassing to increase compassion, trust, and social cohesion in your community. 
  • Utilize programs like vot+ER in settings where clinicians of all kinds interact with patients and clients. Members of communities that often report the least amount of trust in healthcare institutions report that their trust in hospitals would increase if they offered voter registration services, pointing to healthcare action in civic engagement as an important strategy to demonstrate trustworthiness and promote health equity. 
  • Connect with local decision-makers in your community to discuss how you might work together to meet mutual goals. 
    • Encourage the adoption of policy that would expand access to registration and voting, including absentee voting and same day voter registration. 
    • Facilitate a power mapping exercise to help you determine who has influence and will be most supportive of your ideas.   
    • Communicate with your elected officials through snail mail, e-mail, phone calls, or face to face meetings about health concerns, or successes, in your community.  This lets them know what is important to you as well as how they can advocate on your behalf.
  • Partner with your regional Community Action Agency.  Tennessee’s 20 Community Action Agencies cover all 95 counties in Tennessee and Tennessee Association of Community Action provides tools and resources to help empower individuals, families, and communities to succeed. 
  • Support policy initiatives that address root causes of desired health goals.  

Stand for Children Tennessee 

Stand for Children TN decided to use deep canvassing as a tool for Transit Equity Day to begin building stronger relationships with community members.  During their voter engagement campaign over the summer and fall of 2022, they noticed a need for changing the beliefs that people had around public safety and other issues. Deep canvassing was a new tool for the organization, so they decided to start with an issue that they were more familiar with — public transportation. 

Deep canvassing is considered a key tool that helped lead to victories for polarizing social issues. In deep canvassing, a trained canvasser speaks with conflicted individuals in an open, non-confrontational conversation to reconsider their prejudices and make lasting shifts toward more compassionate opinions of traditionally marginalized members of our society. The elements of being heard in a non-judgmental space, story sharing, being vulnerable, and centering the conversation around compassion are all essential to the success of deep canvassing. 

Stand for Children TN used deep canvassing during their Transit Equity Day as a first step to understanding people's deep-held beliefs. They learned that even when people agree on an issue, they differ in how important they think that the issue is and what they think the solution should be. They also learned about new issues that bus riders are facing, and that will help them direct their future efforts to advocate for transit. Deep canvassing also made many leaders more comfortable in sharing people's stories. Stand for Children TN will use their findings to help advocate for systems that meet people's basic needs.  

Contact Ron Davis at rdavis@stand.org 

TN Secretary of State's Office

 

The League of Women Voters of Tennessee

  • Voter Information is available through LWVTN, a nonpartisan political organization which encourages the informed and active participation in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. The League of Women Voters does not support or oppose any political candidate or party.

Disability Rights Tennessee

  • Disability Voting Rights FAQ answers some frequently asked questions about people with disabilities' voting rights, as explained by DRT’s Public Policy and Voting Rights Attorney. 
  • Deaf Vote TN! Election Guide offers a video guide to the election process in Tennessee for d/Deaf voters. 
  • Accessible Elections for Tennessee Voters is a video developed in partnership between Disability Rights Tennessee, the Tennessee Disability Coalition, and the Tennessee Secretary of State to demonstrate an accessible polling place and voting process for Tennesseans with all types of disabilities. This video is a resource for election officials, poll workers, and the disability community. There are over one million people in Tennessee living with a disability and when you arrive on Election Day to vote, you want what every other voter wants — the ability to cast your ballot privately and independently. 

Vot-ER

  • The Resource Center offers information about voting conversation-starters for healthcare providers, training videos, and more. Vot-ER develops nonpartisan civic engagement tools and programs for every corner of the healthcare system, from private practitioners to medical schools to hospitals.  Voting is just one tool to advocate for what we care about — but it's a powerful one.  The broad reach of our healthcare system, combined with the trusted role many doctors, nurses, and social workers hold in their communities, make healthcare an ideal arena for civic engagement to engage voters.  

Healthy Democracy, Healthy People

  • Health & Democracy Index is a major project from HDHP, a new nonpartisan initiative from major public health and civic engagement groups that supports public health professionals and policymakers who are working to advance civic participation and public health.   
  • Communications Resources including a Civic Health Month communications toolkit, a Healthy Voting Guide social media toolkit, and more.

American Association of People with Disabilities

  • REV UP stands for “Register! Educate! Vote! Use your Power!” The REV UP Voting Campaign’s mission is to foster civic engagement and protect the voting rights of Americans with disabilities. REV UP is a nonpartisan campaign that focuses on building the power of the disability vote across the country.