Vote like an Epidemiologist, Vote for Public Health
Category : PROspective
With election day now just hours away, the Confounder invited Nellie Garlow and Lisa Chung, 2nd year Epi MPH students and founders of the Rollins Election Day Initiative (REDI), to talk about their motivations for creating the organization and how they view epidemiology and civic engagement as two sides of the same coin.
Growing up with Civic Engagement
Nellie: When Dean Curran asked a group of students in January of this year, “what can we do right now to solve some of our greatest public health problems?” the first thing that came into my mind was cancelling classes on Election Day. To some, this may have seemed unrelated, but, for me, having grown up right outside of Washington, DC, politics were integral to my world view. From a young age, I attended protests on the national mall, shook the hands of congressmen and congresswomen, and listened in while politics were debated at the dinner table. My parents, who were both federal workers in different public health sectors, not only taught me about the connection between politics and human health, but also showed me how critical it was to engage civically no matter which party was in office.
Lisa: The earliest memory that I have of elections is walking to the polling site with my family of three generations. After voting, we would turn on the news as soon as we were back home and follow the election results as every single ballot was counted until well past midnight. To me, voting was always a family affair. It was only possible with my parents’ busy schedules because the Presidential Election Day is recognized as a national holiday in South Korea. From casting my first ever ballot in Korean Presidential Election to returning my mail-in ballots in Washington state, voting has always been as easy (if not easier!) as running an errand. It is unfathomable to me, to this date, that anyone would ever have to question whether to vote or work (or attend classes) or wait for hours in line. So, once Nellie shared her ideas for the Rollins Election Day Initiative, I knew that this would reduce an enormous potential burden to civic engagement within the Rollins community.
When the opportunity arose to increase election and civic engagement at Rollins, we knew the fastest way our school could make a difference was to remove synchronous class content from Election Day so that public health students could vote and help others in the community to cast their ballots safely. Together, we would spend the next eight months standing up Rollin’s first non-partisan voting rights organization, the Rollins Election Day Initiative (REDI), in hopes of making a difference in public health.
Civic Engagement and Epidemiology
As epidemiologists, we have an ethical obligation to act in the best interest of the public’s health and one key way we can do this is by ensuring all people have a say in which politicians make decisions that impact their health directly. When citizens face barriers to voting, they lose that representation on the local, state, and national levels. As with health, a wealth of evidence suggests that disparities in access to voting happen along socioeconomic and racial lines in the US. This is no coincidence, since disparities in both health and voting access are driven by the same structural mechanisms. As those responsible for both elucidating the causal structure of such inequalities and working to undo them, it is thus our responsibility as epidemiologist to also advocate for the elimination of the upstream causes of unequal access to voting.
Another critical reason we as epidemiologists must pay attention to elections and politics is because we hold elected officials to using the best evidence available when making public health decisions. It is not enough to simply produce the evidence of a causal mechanism and then rely on others to ensure its appropriate application – when we see politicians disregarding facts for political gains that negatively impact the public’s health and our own credibility as scientists, it is our obligation to speak up. Epidemiologists must hold our elected leaders accountable.
One thing we cannot compromise on when getting involved in politics is civility. We must remember that there are a wide range of political opinions, both across the US and at Rollins, and it is critical that we listen to one another and convey our opinions respectfully. As is emphasized from the core of our department, we should approach these conversations with flexibility and empathy, but most importantly with respect to one another. Rather than silencing the views that oppose yours, think about the growth that can be experienced when listening and learning to from others, especially in the moments when it feels most challenging. We can move forward as a nation, as a department, as scientists and individuals, only if we allow ourselves to learn from each other in a civil, respectful manner. Only together, we can grow, flourish, and “redeem the soul of our nation.”
Finally, engaging in politics and elections makes us establish good habits. As Emory professor Carol Anderson writes in her book, One Person No Vote, it is critical we get involved in elections and civic engagement early on and to not take our democracy for granted. This year’s presidential election may seem like a contentious one, but we’re betting it won’t be the last nail-bitter we see in our lifetimes. Furthermore, there will be countless local elections that will have an even greater impact on the public’s health and as public health professionals, we can’t forget those.
As we head into the election, we have a simple message for all of you: get involved on Election Day, stay involved in your local elections, and support your community in the process. To quote, late Congressman John Lewis, “when historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.”
If you would like to get involved in REDI’s work or learn more about their efforts, check out their website where you can find all of the resources they have compiled, like a map of ballot drop boxes, nonpartisan fact sheets about what is on the ballot in local elections, and more! Also, be sure to follow REDI on Twitter and Instagram and like their Facebook page. A special thanks to Nellie and Lisa for sharing their stories and to the entire REDI team for the work they continue to do to improve civic engagement at Emory and throughout Georgia!