REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Can training local barbers to talk to clients about civic participation increase voting?

What better way to leave an impression in someone’s head about voting than to have barbers lead the discussion? A group out of Philadelphia believes this is one solid way to increase voter turnout in the city, especially among African Americans. The Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program (YO-ACAP) recently won a $250,000 grant from The Knight Foundation for its Sharp Insight proposal to recruit local barbers to share elections information and resources.  

It makes sense: A lot of things are passionately shared in the barbershop space, from myth-busting (and myth-generating) to intense chatter around sports-team supremacy. And while policy is often on the menu of issues to debate, there’s not always a lot of follow-up in those heated discussions on how to channel that political fervor to the polls.

Through the Sharp Insight program, up to 50 barbers across the city will receive paid training to distribute basic information around elections and their administration: where to vote, what forms are needed to register to vote, how to file a provisional ballot, what to do if you cannot access your polling place. The barbers will also survey the heads in their chairs about their attitudes on voting, asking them when the last time they voted was—or, if they don’t vote, probing them on why not. The project is also set up to dispel any misinformation people may have about how past criminal offenses may affect their voting rights.  

The focus is mostly on African American men, who vote in low numbers, often because of confusion around their ability to vote. Low voter turnout is a problem across all races and in most cities, though. In Philly, just over a third of registered voters turned out for the governor’s race last year, the second-lowest turnout for a gubernatorial election since 1990. Only 12 percent came out for local elections in 2013. This year, the city will elect a new mayor to replace Michael Nutter, but for the May primary election, only 12 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 to 34 came out.

This is a good time, then, to get a voter-education initiative up and running as next year’s presidential election quickly approaches. Sharp Insight’s goal is to engage roughly 6,000 black men in a year’s time.

One of the main obstacles the organization identified in its proposal is ensuring that the barbers remain non-partisan as they speak to clients. To keep the program neutral, Sharp Insight has budgeted for coaches and technical-support staff who will regularly check in on the barbers, providing them with nonpartisan language and guidance.

It should be said that this sort of program is needed because local government agencies have done such a lousy job of ensuring that disadvantaged and disenfranchised populations have what they need to vote. In 2012, a coalition of national voting rights groups including, Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sued Pennsylvania over this. As mandated by the National Voter Registration Act, local welfare and social service agencies are supposed to distribute voter materials at their offices, but they weren’t. That case was settled that year, but the terms of the settlement only extend to September of this year. Just in time for Sharp Insights to start doing its thing.     

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