2020 Seminar Series

Structural Racism: The Ultimate Determinant of Health

Seminar 1: Voter Suppression

Speakers: State Representative Morgan Cephas and Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier 

View the full recording here.

Recap: The Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI) 2020-2021 seminar series, entitled Structural Racism: The Ultimate Social Determinant of Health builds upon our summer series Inequities and COVID-19: The Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color and focuses a public health lens on racism. The first seminar in the series, held October 22, 2020, featured a timely topic leading into the 2020 presidential election – Voter Suppression. Moderator Heather Klusaritz (MSW, PhD), CPHI’s Director of Community Engagement, was joined by Pennsylvania State Representative Morgan Cephas and Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, both of whom represent the West Philadelphia neighborhoods in which they grew up. These civic leaders both expressed a pull to public service based on their experiences in Philadelphia, with Gauthier saying, “Councilmembers have the incredible ability to really empower people within neighborhoods to make change.” 

The conversation started with the important connection between voting and health disparities and the critical role of elected officials at every level who support public health decisions and policies. Gauthier pointed out that whoever wins the presidential election will set the policy agenda for the next four years including the key policy decisions that impact public health. The policy agenda is a particularly crucial issue during the COVID-19 pandemic that has real world implications for the constituencies that Gauthier and Cephas represent. Gauthier noted that she represents two neighborhoods with the highest fatality rates in Philadelphia. Cephas elaborated on how important it was to have control over delegating funds for public health, whether it be to support a group of Black and brown doctors who are providing COVID-19 testing for their communities (such as the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium) or whether it is for rural hospitals to increase ICU capacity.

With the recognition of voting and voting rights as a core social determinant of health, it is clear that voter suppression is a type of structural racism with the potential to exacerbate health disparities. "We are voting for our lives and our cities, especially during this pandemic," Gauthier stated. Importantly, Cephas pointed out that voter suppression is not a new phenomenon, with Black and brown people historically having been denied their constitutional right to vote. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there is a partisan effort to decrease access to early polling, while increasing efforts in voter intimidation. This leads to disenfranchisement with the election process, directly suppressing the right to vote. Representative Cephas highlighted some of the current tactics at play in Pennsylvania including attempts to implement “poll watchers to that are from counties throughout

Pennsylvania to come to cities like Philadelphia to potentially do voter intimidation and voter suppression oppression.” Gauthier emphasized, “our votes matter now more than ever... whoever is elected will impact public health priorities.” It doesn’t take much to impact election results, as Gauthier pointed out, Trump won Pennsylvania with a margin of only 44,000 votes in 2016, leading to four years of failed leadership on public health. 

Both Cephas and Gauthier emphasized that efforts to overcome voter suppression need to be designed with Black and brown communities in mind, and they encouraged the audience to participate in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts at whatever level they feel comfortable with – from phone banks and personal letter writing campaigns, to driving people to early polling and voter centers, to signing up to be a poll worker on November 3rd. Public health efforts to disseminate evidence-based information about COVID-19 also play a critical role in fighting voter suppression. As Representative Cephas said, "The public health community can help with debunking myths about COVID-19, providing education about personal protective equipment (PPE), and encouraging the use of masks.” It is the responsibility of public health professionals to make sure that the voting population is not obstructed in any way to vote safely. 

As we move forward from the 2020 presidential election, efforts to combat voting suppression must continue. Policy decisions that impact the health of the public play out every day in local and state government as well, and the public health community can continue to make sure the right to vote is protected for all Americans.