Conversations about voting rights in America and the Freedom to Vote Act underscore an opportunity to improve upon and make an impact in this country.
“I’m passionate about the fact that people should be involved and should be educated to know how to be involved, and that if everybody can vote and it’s a fair and level playing field, then perhaps we’ll get the best elected officials we possibly deserve,” Dora Kingsley Vertenten, teaching professor and faculty director for USC’s Master of Public Administration online program, said.
Unfortunately, debate about whether things are fair leads into the issue at hand. And Vertenten — who is an award-winning faculty member, lifetime Fellow of the Congress-chartered National Academy of Public Administration, seven-time participant of the national Presidential naming convention and who has appeared in interviews on NBC, PBS, BBC and New York One — discussed the situation and ways to make a difference.
Why Are Voting Rights (Still) an Issue?
Broadly, voting right in America goes back hundreds of years when voting was linked to property rights. You had to be male, firstborn or own property to vote.
“The conception that everybody should have the right to vote and participate if they want to is really very modern,” Vertenten said. “And so the fight is very modern, but it goes back to an issue about who has power.”
“Is money power? Is land power? Is gender power? Is ethnicity power? Anytime you embolden someone else to participate, sometimes the people who are involved see that as a diminishment of their own stake. So I think that at its essence, voting rights talks about the enfranchisement of people and who has the power to make decisions. And we fight over power; that we have done for centuries.”
Power combines with a rather complex redistricting process that defines where someone votes in addition to who’s registered to vote, when they can register to vote and how they register to vote. Plus, there are questions of how you cast a ballot, such as voting hours and whether it’s necessary to be there in person.
“Just the right to vote is not a simplistic issue,” Vertenten said. “It has to go through these many stages, and the rules are complicated, internecine and localized.”
She likened it all to game of Monopoly.
“When I play with my seven-year-old grandson, he has his own set of rules,” Vertenten said. “And funny enough, he usually wins. But voting rights is exactly the same. He who writes the rules often has an oversized impact on the outcome.”
“And now elections are millions of dollars in terms of the operations of what it takes to get somebody elected or the ability to raise money for political issues that may or may not go to those causes. It’s big money, and anytime big money’s involved, it’s big stakes.”
Photo courtesy of Dora Kingsley Vertenten, pictured third from left.
How You Can Make a Difference
The problems are certainly deep-rooted and complex, yet there are steps you can take to get involved. “If nothing else, I think, educating ourselves about what that process looks like so that if we don’t like what’s happening, we can get involved and make a difference is critically important if we want to continue this American democratic experience,” Vertenten said.
Simple Ways to Have an Impact
The most direct activity is to be a poll watcher for a county election officer. It’s incredibly difficult to staff people who help others on election day, including checking their IDs to see if they’re eligible, where necessary, handing out ballots and collecting ballots or answering questions about voting machines. People who are retired used to volunteer a lot for this role, but there simply aren’t a lot of people doing that anymore.
“In the last election, if it hadn’t been for a push, a very young population under 30 to actually take the day off and volunteer, we wouldn’t be able to open as many polling stations as possible,” Vertenten said. “So a super simple thing that has no partisan implication at all is to make sure with your county elections office, that they have enough people to actually staff the election.”
She also mentioned how helping make sure people can be registered to vote is an important volunteering opportunity. You can simply Google your location and “voter registration” to learn how to get involved, and this is an opportunity you can do from home by phone or electronically.
Finally, you can investigate redistricting, which is done every 10 years in most places and will affect, for the first time, districts in the coming election for the fall of 2022. Looking up your state and the redistricting process will tell you which states have moved either to a judicial oversight or to a commission appointed by the governor or the legislature.
“And in that case, it’s generally out of most citizens’ hands, but it’s not out of people’s hands if they want to advocate if the rules are changing in a legislature or they don’t like the outcome, or if they’re using a computer system that’s too hard to understand,” Vertenten said. “Government is supposed to be transparent for everybody to understand.”
Considering Having a Deeper Impact
If you’re passionate about voting rights or other current events, you might wonder what kind of impact you could have if you made it your career focus. Vertenten was adamant that something like voting could be an area where someone — a new grad or someone making a career switch — could truly make a difference in a number of roles.
“When we think about politics, we think about running for office and the candidates and the campaigns that they run,” she said. “But what we don’t understand is there’s this huge machinery much of which is all public administration based. So working at the city clerk’s office, working in the county clerk’s office or the registrar voters office, working for a secretary of state at any of the states in the U.S. and in other territories.”
“There are lots and lots of jobs for people who are involved because the process by which we actually run our democracy takes a lot of people and a lot of expertise. It takes everything from the data scientist to the analyst to the clerk. And they’re just a million jobs in that business.”
Vertenten shared how graduates of USC’s Master of Public Administration online program, such as those in a recent webinar with alumni working in the city manager’s office, express how they’re looking for people all the time. And they, along with other employers, take the opportunity to recruit students and graduates of the program because everyone understands its quality.
The Difference of an Elite Program
As you might expect of the No. 4 program in the nation for public affairs (U.S. News & World Report), you’ll receive a top-tier education and experience a dramatic impact on your career — whether you’re looking for advancement or a career change.
The Master of Public Administration online program at USC starts with a foundation of theory along and senior-level communication, analytical and research skills. “But we’re a practitioner school with a systems analysis bent,” Vertenten said. “And so it doesn’t do you any good just to know how we think it should be done, you need to know how to make the rubber meet the road. Particularly in an online program where students have been out of school for a while, and have day jobs, students want to know in real time, ‘Is what I’m learning today applicable in my office tomorrow morning?’”
Case studies like Hurricane Katrina and the 2021 Texas power crisis examine government failures and identity theoretical components and applying lessons to students’ experiences. Current events are also used, spanning examples like voting rights in America, opioid addictions and drone policies in urban areas. The culmination of the program is the capstone, where students consult with a real client to research and advise them on a problem. Past projects have included the Embassy of Austria in Washington and international projects for EU and Ireland.
When asked what separates USC from any other school, Vertenten was quick to respond with the Trojan Network and how that’s especially true for public administration, as USC was the second school in the country to launch an MPA.
“Our degree is more than a hundred years old,” she said. “And the alumni that have come from both our LA campus program and the Sacramento campus program, which has been around for 30 or 40 years, and the online program which has now started in its second decade — that is a wealth of talent and people who are willing to give you an answer, give you the time of day, do an informational interview, help you job hunt, answer questions about their own organization.”
“And furthermore, as my alumni always tell me, they’re reaching back for talent. ‘Who have you got in your new pool because we need to hire X, Y and Z?’ Tell me who you have that I can talk to.’ The people to people piece is invaluable.”
Not only are alumni in contact with faculty members to poach students and new grads for hiring, but employers are well aware of the talent at such a prestigious, top program.
“What’s been happening lately in the middle of COVID is because the job market’s so hot, half the class is jumping jobs in their second and third semesters because employers know, “Hey, they’re in a seriously strong program,’” Vertenten said. “Employers know the students are well underway in their academics, so they say, ‘We’ll grab them now for our jobs.’ And I’ve seen that job progression happen sooner and sooner.”
If you’re intrigued by the opportunity to make a difference and dedicate your career to protecting Americans’ voices, we’d love to discuss what that might look like and to answer your questions. You can also learn more at the MPA online program page.