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Why We Should Care About the Homeless Vote

Only 10 percent of homeless Americans vote each year, but they can still make a difference in local elections.
 
 
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Having a home is not a prerequisite to vote in the United States. But activists and homeless service providers still face major challenges trying to help homeless Americans register.

Pitts v. Black (1984) and several subsequent cases in the 1980s and '90s established that homeless people could not be denied the right to vote because they did not live in a traditional residence. A shelter, park or street corner can be designated as a residence. In states that require a mailing address for voter registration, homeless voters can usually use the addresses of shelters, churches, friends’ houses, or P.O. boxes.

Still, turnout among homeless voters is one of the lowest for any demographic. Inthe2008 presidential election, people with the lowest income (family annual income less than $20,000) and people with no reported income -- the groups most homeless Americans fall into -- had the lowest voter registration rate and the lowest voting rate. According to Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), only one-tenth of unhoused persons actually exercise the right to vote, and over the years, “the number has been fairly consistent.”

This is unfortunate, because homeless voters can make a difference. As the 2012 presidential election nears, issues that are relevant to homeless Americans, such as economic inequality, healthcare and job creation, will continue to shape the national debate. Although the homeless vote may not be a wild card for any candidate or party, with at least 1.6 millionpeopleexperiencinghomelessness nationwide, it does have the potential to change the game in some swing states.

Some advocates believe the real impact of the homeless vote lies in local elections. “Americans are most interested in national elections, which is ironic in a sense, because local elections are the ones that affect...your day-to-day life the most,” said Devo’n Williams of HomelessbutNot Powerless, an advocate group that pushes for greater homeless engagement in local elections. Indeed, local legislation and policies about funding, housing, healthcare, transportation, and employment can often have a greater, more direct impact on homeless people’s lives than national policy.

Sill, the upcoming presidential election is a great opportunity for activists to raise awareness for the cause of homeless suffrage. From September 30 to October 6, NCH will sponsor the National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week to help its 4,000 member organizations across the country boost voter registration. NCH has sponsored the week-long event every presidential election year since 1992 as part of its You Don’t Need A Home to Vote campaign, which has helped register tens of thousands of homeless voters.

This year, activists may have to work harder, for newvoterIDlawsandotherrestrictionsintroducedtostatesacrossthe country will make it more difficult for some homeless Americans to vote. At least 34 states introduced laws that require photo ID for voter registration; at least 17 states introduced laws that require proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate. For homeless people, who do not have a steady residence, keeping documents such as a birth certificate is a challenging if not insurmountable task. Many also cannot afford the fees to apply for an ID.

Some states also introduced bills that would make voter registration harder by restricting voter registration drives, eliminating election day registration, reducing early voting periods, or making it harder to restore voting rights. Civil rights activists often organize voter registration drives to help and mobilize the homeless to register to vote, and these bills can make their work more difficult.

 
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