Participation Perseveres Through Pandemic, While Voter Turnout Lags
Though the pandemic limited in-person interactions, Springfield-Greene County citizens built social capital through volunteerism, collaborations, voter activity and civic input to guide Springfield’s growth, according to a new white paper released today on civic participation from the Community Focus Report.
This year, the Community Focus Report—the biennial report card of strengths and challenges in Springfield and Greene County—is releasing detailed white papers focused on the 11 key areas ahead of the printed report, which will be released on Oct. 21.
While in-person volunteerism and nonprofit support temporarily decreased as a result of COVID-19, people connected through virtual formats to help their community.
The community continues to be affected, however, by low voter turnout and registrations, and a widening divide over trust in elections and COVID-19 vaccines as misinformation about both are shared by community members and some elected officials. Reduced civility in public forums, whether in-person or through social media, also has taken hold, potentially discouraging civic participation.
Strong civic engagement around local issues has continued to guide Springfield's future growth, building levels of trust and community ownership. A prime example is Forward SGF, an extensive public process to identify community priorities for a 20-year comprehensive plan guiding the city's future. Some 60 workshops engaged nearly 1,500 participants. In addition, virtual engagements numbered nearly 6,000.
Following a reduction in activity during early months of the pandemic, community members showed strong support of nonprofits through volunteerism and donations. Response is steady for Volunteer Ozarks, a free community web portal to help people connect with volunteer opportunities. Leadership Springfield, a program for professionals, has more than 130 active volunteers. The United Way of the Ozarks promotes volunteerism through several programs including Give 5, which continued online classes during the pandemic to connect retired Greene County seniors to nonprofits and volunteer opportunities. To date, nearly 240 residents are Give 5 graduates. The area's sizable faith community contributes to strong community engagement through collaborations with nonprofits and with the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, an ecumenical organization that includes 72 member churches and more than 4,000 active supporters.
Efforts to promote voting were strong, too, with the League of Women Voters leading a coalition of 10 nonpartisan organizations to conduct virtual candidate and issue forums on multiple platforms. Prior to the November 2020 election, the Springfield-Greene County Library District worked with the League to hold registration and notarization opportunities. Despite those efforts, voter turnout and registrations remain low in Greene County, with an estimated 71% of those eligible to vote actively registered for the November 2020. Greene County's April 2021 election had a low 13.25% turnout. Trust in the election process has suffered as well, with misinformation being shared by general populations and by elected officials.
In a relatively new development, community leaders have expressed concern that misinformation about COVID-19 has led to public divides over masking and vaccination requirements, even as trusted local sources continue to share science-based information. Protests, aggressive encounters and caustic public forums could suppress civic engagement by those with alternative views.
The complete list of Blue Ribbons and Red Flags for Citizen Participation can be found in the white paper.
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