People with mental illness have struggled throughout the history of this country. We are often not seen as citizens with rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Exercising our right to vote requires advocacy, a comprehension of the electoral system, and an examination of our very identity in the context of our larger community. The participation of those with mental illness in voting needs to be seen as an implement not only for selecting leadership but for being perceived by others and ourselves as having membership in the process of dealing with leadership. We need to reclaim a power that has been taken from us by stigma, not by nature.
I was involved with a get-out-the-vote process for those with mental illness for a highly dramatic election. In 2010, in the first election of Gov. Scott Walker, this GOTV process began at the mental health recovery program Yahara House in Madison. Yahara House is a "clubhouse model" program, maintained and governed by the people with mental illness, called members, that it provides services for.
When we conducted this, our first GOTV effort at Yahara House, the director of the clubhouse suggested obtaining a sample ballot so members could see how votes are cast. It was a critical move. I was quite surprised by how very many needed to see how simple the process actually was. There had been a general consensus that voting was similar to giving blood — painful and beyond the control of the participant. At the clubhouse meeting where the sample ballot was shown and distributed, a member suggested providing a photograph of a voting booth as well. This was done.
Familiarity bred success. An excitement about crossing the threshold into citizenship, as a team, began to snowball. Keeping the process simple, we focused on early, also known as absentee, voting. Excursions to the City-County Building were arranged. To help people make decisions about who to vote for, brochures prepared by the League of Women Voters were distributed around the clubhouse. This wasn’t as useful as it might have been. Many members were confused and distrustful of all communications from all candidates. Several said they voted straight-party ticket based on past assumptions and felt more qualified to use their judgment for referendums.
Certain things became apparent. First, the members of the clubhouse became aware that voting is a do-able activity; it is a task they can perform. Exciting and titillating, an experience to remember. As GOTV moved forward, a threshold was crossed. From entering the world of "I can and I will do it," it became "I count and I know it." The threshold crossed is into a new world — a world of belonging to a community. All of our hospitalizations and med changes and years of poverty are not a consideration as we stand in front of a small blue table and do our part in the general process of selecting leadership.
Not that this is easy. GOTV is not simply getting us into line to fill out a ballot. It’s getting people into a realization we are not bent down by the forces of stigma and stigmatized self-image. We learn that we shouldn’t assume that our lives lack respect and dignity, that we have to hide our identity from an entire city of people who are assumed to be different, respectable. GOTV is a transformation. That step is taken first, and then the voting process begins.
One should not assume that simply voting will turn participants into citizens with more "average" lives. First, define "average." Many people worldwide, including those who are college-educated and well read, do not cast ballots. Like other first-time voters they need to look at a sample ballot, look at the picture of a voting booth and get a ride to as well as companionship at the polling place their first time.
Organizing GOTV for those with mental illness is as rewarding as it is complex. It requires a lot of attention and is at times stressful. But it not only builds community, it builds lives.
Voting is about power. Those of us with mental health care challenges are more prone to believe we don’t count — so how can our single vote count? My perspective is that voting is not only choosing leadership, it is a part of one’s identity. The voting booth is a context in which passivity and dependence expands to community and interdependence. Taking seriously our responsibility as constituents and voting simply because it is something expected of citizens every Election Day helps us become people who are earnest, sincere, respectable and accomplished members of our community.
Ed Erwin, MSW, CPS (certified peer specialist) is a member of the Yahara House clubhouse and has been the organizer of several GOTV efforts in the disability community.
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