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Voting for a Healthier Community

Over the past decade, the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) has been at the forefront of efforts to re-conceptualize the role of a public health agency. In 2008, it adopted a health equity framework that focuses not only on the traditional downstream factors that influence individual and community health outcomes (e.g., individual health behaviors like smoking), but also on the upstream or socio-ecological factors that determine health (e.g., discriminatory beliefs, institutional power, and social inequities). In order to monitor and address the impact of socio-ecological factors on health outcomes in the County, ACPHD has developed and implemented a number of initiatives and programs aimed at addressing the social determinants of health. 

Despite designing and implementing a number of community capacity building and civic engagement programs over the past decade, efforts to monitor the levels of voter participation—a key indicator of political empowerment and social capital—have been very limited. Troubled by a recent drop in the County’s voter turnout rates, ACPHD’s Legislative Council Coordinator, Pam Willow (’01), brought me on to work on a new Voter Turnout Initiative. 

The goal of this initiative is to learn more about how voter participation affects both community and individual health; what the Department can do to address low levels of voter registration and turnout; and how it might implement a pilot program aimed at improving voter participation rates in the upcoming 2016 elections, particularly among low-income people of color who have historically been underrepresented in the political system. 

Working on this project for my Applied Policy Analysis (APA) has been an incredible learning experience that has required me to use every skill in my policy analysis tool set. I applied my newly-acquired quantitative skills to identify emerging trends in voter participation as well as connections between voter participation rates and health outcomes. Most of my work, however, has involved interviewing much of ACPHD’s staff, its sister agencies, community partners, and clinical practitioners. Here my Introduction to Policy Analysis (IPA) experience has been invaluable as it proved to be a training ground for working within an agency context, learning about interview protocols, and practicing how to organize and synthesize large amounts of qualitative data into concise and useful pieces of information for a decisionmaker. Through this process, I have conducted an organizational analysis of ACPHD’s operational capacity and resources to identify ways in which different public health programs can contribute to the work of the initiative’s three phases: voter registration, public education, and voter turnout. 

I am now in the process of using all of the research I have conducted to inform the design of an implementation plan that ACPHD can use. I recently learned that the recommendations I put forth in my APA report will be put into place this summer and fall in the lead up to the November general election. In fact, we are recruiting first-year GSPP students to serve as interns that will implement and evaluate the plan in the coming months. Reflecting back, this project truly feels like the culmination of my two years of professional development at the Goldman School. The project seeks to see a problem as an opportunity, to use policy analysis to inform decisionmaking, and to create positive change in our community.

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Vanessa Cedeño received her Masters in Public Policy from the Goldman School in 2016 and is currently a policy consultant at Alameda County Public Health Department.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Policy Notes.