By Christina Huizar
Most of us are aware of many problems faced by the homeless population in America. We know of cold nights on the street when shelters are full. We know that such shelters are almost invariably underfunded and understaffed. We know of hunger and sickness that is a daily reality for millions of the homeless, and the demoralizing effects of having to beg for money. These are the most immediately apparent problems, and the ones that first come to mind, but there is another problem with far-reaching consequences: the ways in which the homeless are kept from voting.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP): “In any given year some 3.5 million men, women, and children are homeless in America. Approximately 60 percent, or 2.1 million people, experiencing homelessness are of voting age.” Although many people (particularly low-income citizens, immigrants, and people of color) are intentionally disenfranchised by voting restrictions and regulations, the homeless population faces obstacles above and beyond those endangering franchise for other citizens. For example, many states require proof of length of residency before voting. For a transient population, such proof can be hard — if not impossible! — to obtain. In addition, NLCHP points out that 35 states also have mailing address requirements, and that voters are removed from registration lists when they fail to respond to mailed notices confirming eligibility.
While debating this issue with a conservative student of my acquaintance, he made the argument that the homeless are free to rent mailboxes, even if they don’t have a residential address. But where are you going to get $42 dollars every six months, if you don’t know how you’re going to pay for your next $2 sandwich? Even disregarding the cost of renting a PO box (not that many can afford to disregard it), the fact remains that in order to rent a PO Box, one must produce TWO verifiable forms of identification, which many homeless citizens do not own, and which are costly to obtain.
This emphasis on verifiable identification is another way in which the homeless are kept from voting. Without an address, it is all but impossible to get any form of identification, and without identification to show at the polls, they are not allowed to vote; no matter what their voter eligibility status. Many people may have previously owned such things as birth certificates, passports, drivers licenses, and other official documents proving identity and citizenship, but without a safe and permanent place to store such documents, they can easily be lost or stolen along the way.
The requirement to show proof of identity at the polls is ostensibly to protect us from voter fraud. However, there are alternatives to the conventional identification methods. These alternatives include methods such as signing an affirmation in front of an election official, digital photographs, signature comparisons, et al. These accomodations should be made to ensure that everyone who wants to vote is able to do so.
The irony is that the homeless folks are the people most directly and closely affected by many public policies, and yet they have no voice in the implementation of social programs. They cannot vote on whether their city needs to build another homeless shelter, nor do they have a voice in elections. If a government is only given legitimacy by consent of the governed, how legitimate is a government where over 3.5 million of its citizens are given no choice in whom they are governed by?
Less than two hundred years ago, only landowners (the propertied classes!) could vote, and the disenfranchisement of the homeless is reminiscent of those days. YDS is committed to the principle of universal suffrage. Additionally, many of the disenfranchised homeless are young people, the very demographic that YDS must reach out to and fight for. We must become active in the struggle for voting rights reform, and ensure that all people, not just those with permanent addresses, can be heard!
Recommended further reading: The Other America by Michael Harrington.
Christina Huizar is a member of the YDS coordinating committee from Texas.