It’s not easy, but you can help make it less difficult
One of the most powerful advocacy tools we have is our ability to influence policy. Speaking up for your homeless neighbors is good. Making sure their voices are heard is even better.
It may surprise some people to learn that homeless people can vote in their state and local elections.
While the lack of a permanent address and difficulty obtaining a photo ID can be setbacks, they can be overcome with a bit of effort.
The homeless residents of a city have just as much of a right to vote as the housed ones, and it’s important that they exercise that right. You can help by joining in the effort to inform and assist your homeless neighbors with voter registration!
The Hoops You Have to Jump Through
There are many barriers in the voter registration process that present a unique or increased challenge to people who are homeless.
The first is realizing that registering to vote is an option for them.
Many people think that you can’t register without a permanent home address to put on the form. But that’s not true. You don’t need to live in a traditional residence in order to register. All you need is the location of a place where you typically sleep, stay, frequent, or return when absent. This can be any location to which you often return, whether it’s a shelter, a friend’s house, or an outdoor location.
If you’re using an outdoor location as your place of residence, it can be anywhere. But you do need to be specific about its exact whereabouts so you can be placed in the correct precinct. If it isn’t near any notable landmarks, you could even include a hand-drawn map.
So, you don’t need a permanent home address, per se. That’s one obstacle cleared.
However, in many states, you do need to provide an address where you can receive mail. It could be a shelter, a mail service, or a friend or relative’s house. But it can’t be a P.O. Box or an outdoor location.
You may also need a valid, government-issued photo ID, either at the time of registering or when you go to vote. While the process of obtaining this ID is usually free, it’s definitely not easy.
Even if you do manage to get a photo ID, when you carry all your possessions with you, they’re more vulnerable to getting lost, stolen, or even confiscated by police.
This risk applies to your photo ID once you have it. It also includes the birth certificate, social security card, and other documents you’ll need to show to get one in the first place.
Like so many things in a life of homelessness, this quickly becomes a vicious cycle.
Interrupting the Vicious Cycle
There are a few states that have made the voter registration process easier and more accessible to all. In North Dakota, for example, there is no voter registration. All you must do is show up at your polling place with proof of residency and you’re good to go.
Indiana allows people to vote without needing to show an ID if they qualify for “indigent” status. Oregon allows homeless registrants to use the county election office address as their official mailing address.
Small changes like these can make a big difference in the number of Americans that are able to exercise their right to vote.
Until they’re adopted everywhere, though, there’s still work to be done.
How You Can Help
If you’d like to start a voter registration drive through an organization you work for, the National Coalition for the Homeless has created a great resource to help you.
You’ll want to click over to read the full document before you get started. I’ll summarize the basic steps for you here:
Step one is to flesh out a plan for your drive.
This involves appointing a person or committee to take charge of the drive. This person or group will need to: find out about specific laws in your area affecting the drive; choose a place and time for your drive; delegate responsibilities for the day of and the time leading up to the drive; and coordinate the efforts of all participants.
Step two involves laying the foundation for a successful drive by preparing and publicizing it.
This is when you’ll need to get together everything you’ll need for a successful voter registration drive. This includes volunteers, pens, clipboards, tables, registration forms, etc. Maps of local polling places are also good to have on hand! Put up posters and flyers around the area to make people aware it’s going to happen. Libraries are a great place for these notices.
Step three is doing it!
Get your most charismatic volunteers to work the table, talking to passersby and encouraging them to register. Depending on your local laws, you may also have food available at your table to draw people in, or small prizes like pens or pins for people who register that day. These prizes aren’t always allowed, so you’ll need to make sure you understand the rules before the big day comes. You must also be careful to conduct your registration event in a completely nonpartisan way, without saying or implying anything for or against any candidate or issue.
Step four comes after the registration event is over with.
Of course, you’ll need to mail in any completed registration forms within the time frame allowed by your election office. But it doesn’t stop there. Once people are registered to vote, they’ll still need to know where, when, and how to do it. So, make sure you get out the vote on election days. This may involve putting up flyers on when and where elections are taking place, offering transportation to polling places, or even volunteering your location to become a polling place.
Those are the basics, but there’s much more to learn. Check out NCH’s guide to get a deeper understanding of how these events are done. From there, you can decide if you’d like to volunteer at a voter registration drive near you. Or even start one of your own!