Government, Public Health, Students

It is election year: Get involved, discuss, debate, listen and vote

September 16, 2020 |7:24 min read


We voted! More about this later in post, but I want to share how excited my husband and I were to complete our ballots. He dropped them off yesterday in Hillsborough. It is done, and it felt great!

Gillings is a big tent with room for many perspectives

An election is coming; of course, you know that! Many people feel that this election will have momentous consequences, coming during a horrendous pandemic, when the lives of people of color have been left exposed to huge inequities, and the economy is fraying. The stakes are enormously high, and who wins matters and will make a large difference in how this country moves forward in the world. It matters for Americans, for those who would be Americans, for international students, people of color, LGBTIQA+ individuals, those who are suffering financial setbacks due to the pandemic, and those who are undocumented. It also matters globally on a range of issues, including funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), climate policies, research collaborations with other countries, and the pandemic.

A big tent is needed for civil discussions about issues

The fact that so many perceive the stakes as high is even more reason to treat everyone with civility during this extra-high-tension period. Once the election is over, we must keep interacting and working with one another. Having been through several presidential elections as dean, I know one thing for sure: temperatures will rise, voices will get louder, and some people will feel they cannot speak or be heard. Some students will perceive some faculty members as too partisan. Every presidential election, some students have come to me and others in the school to say that they feel there is no place for them, and that they cannot express their political perspectives. That is particularly true for those with a conservative bent since public health skews liberal. That’s not OK. The school cannot be our platform for partisan politics. Our jobs involve training students to think critically and weigh evidence regarding different policy initiatives being vetted in the election so they can reach their own conclusions. Our students, like our faculty and staff, are heterogenous in their perspectives. It is not our right to impose our politics upon them.

The Gillings School should be a place where many points of view are welcomed, whether in person, via Zoom, on social media, or any space where people interact. We are not a Republican school, a Democratic school or an Independent school. We must be a place with a big tent and a big heart, where all are welcomed. We respect and uphold the right of the First Amendment, what tends to be referred to loosely as free speech. We welcome opposing points of view that are stated with evidence, facts, respect and civility. Within the bounds of the First Amendment, we find abhorrent speech that is racist, bullying, threatening, accusatory or that violates policies about discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability and/or other individual attributes.

Our students want to discuss many topics, from race to religion, and big questions about the role of Gillings and UNC-Chapel Hill in solving the problems of the U.S. and the world. Higher education should include exposing ourselves to different points of view with an open mind and open heart. We do not need to agree with all the perspectives we hear. Listening is part of the responsibility borne by those who live in democracies. Right now, in this moment of emotional rawness, polarization and fear, is a time to encourage and facilitate hard, open and honest discussions, giving more room for those who are uncomfortable with them to be forewarned and step away if need be. I hope that the outcome of listening and talking will be a greater realization of the common bonds among us and willingness to reach for solutions to what divides us.

Public health, democracy and voting are interconnected

Writing in the Sept. 4 special issue of Science, Rai and Wible argued that democracy is losing ground around the world. That is a frightening notion. Read the issue on “Democracy in the Balance” for a “scientific understanding of the social and behavioral phenomena that underlie its operation.”

On Sept. 11, a day that we will long remember for the awful events that occurred 19 years ago, at the 26th annual National Health Equity Research Webcast, focused on “Truth to Power: Building Solidarity for Health and Democracy,” we heard three speakers address the challenges of our time in the context of health and democracy. Public health and democracy are linked by being about people and the role of people in governance. Voting is inherently connected to public health because who leads has a lot to do with how healthy people are, especially the most vulnerable among us. Today, public health is more relevant and important than ever, squarely at the intersection of three massive phenomena roiling the world—the global pandemic, recognition of racial inequities and demands for an end to racism, and the economic consequences that are fraying lives across the U.S. and around the world. The American Public Health Association (APHA) declared racism an ongoing public health crisis that needs our attention now. Racism causes ill health and deaths disproportionately in those who experience it.

Plan to vote so your vote is counted

Be sure you are registered where you intend to vote. Students: take nothing for granted so you do not get an unpleasant surprise on election day. Get the facts about the different ways you can vote, e.g., by mail, in-person early and in-person on election day. Make a plan for how you will vote; for example, if by mail, you’ll want to allow plenty of time to be sure your vote is received and counted; if in-person early, you’ll want to know where to go.

This year, due to COVID-19 and depending on the locale, there is more need than usual for people to staff in-person election sites, both for early voting and on election day. Here is some more information about signing up to work the polls in North Carolina; contact your county’s Board of Elections for more details. Those living in other states should contact state and county boards of elections. UNC-Chapel Hill offers community service leave to permanent employees who sign up to work at polling sites. Be sure you are masked and physically distanced. This is not an election to sit out. The results may affect the quality of public health, the economy, whether we condone or condemn racism, and our collective well-being for years to come

Election do’s and don’ts

Most UNC employees work for the state of North Carolina and are subject to certain limitations on political activity. Each employee retains all the rights and obligations of citizenship provided in the Constitution and laws of the State of North Carolina and the Constitution and laws of the United States of America. However,

no employee subject to the North Carolina Human Resources Act shall take any active part in managing a political campaign, campaigning for political office, or otherwise engaging in political activity while on work time or within any period of time during which the employee is expected to perform services for which compensation is received from the State. Also, no employee subject to the State Personnel Act shall otherwise affect the results of a partisan election involving candidates for office or party nominations through the use of authority and prestige of position, State funds, or use of State property. (Article 5; 126-13[a])

Complete census 2020 to be counted

Because voting is connected to being counted, don’t forget to complete your census form by Sept. 30. Households can still respond to the 2020 census by going online at, by phone at 844-330-2020, or by completing and mailing back the paper questionnaire. The short form can be completed in minutes. The census helps to determine local resources and the allocation of legislative representation. As of today, 92.4 percent of households in the U.S. have been counted, including 87.7 percent in North Carolina. Undercounting can result in serious under-allocation. Don’t let that happen.

Advocacy for public health and democracy

In the coming weeks, there will be many opportunities for discussions about local and national candidates and the causes and policies for which they stand. We must have those discussions with respect and civility. Our school must be a place where we can have difficult conversations before and after the election.

We stand at a crossroads, and each of us must decide where to stand and how to vote. We have an opportunity now to stand up for democracy and the values we, in public health, embrace. We can achieve the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution of an America for all and not only for the privileged elite. That is a weighty responsibility with which we are charged, but we are worthy of that responsibility.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.