Tucked away in a corner of the mail-in voter registration form for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a small diagram of a city intersection, with streets labeled north, south, east and west. This chart, for those who cannot describe their place of residence “as a number and street or as a rural route and box number,” is the closest that people experiencing homelessness can get to an address.
The fact that homeless persons are unable to use standard language to describe their lives — that they must draw, rather than write, their place of residence — is a testament to the larger disconnect between those who call the streets home and those who merely sojourn there. There is no system for indicating a residence for people experiencing homelessness, not even the postal code. Public discussion of voting, roused from dormancy once every four years in the fall, speaks directly to this problem.
Moreover, there are many who do not consider the question of homeless disenfranchisement a problem in the moral sense. Some weeks ago, so-called “voter suppression laws” in Pennsylvania and elsewhere occupied space in the news cycles. These laws, which would require government-issued identification from voters at the time of voting, have been touted as reasonable requirements to rein in voter fraud. But opponents have pointed out that the laws specifically target and disenfranchise those whose daily lives are so far alienated from the status quo that they are unable to obtain a government ID or would have no reason to do so.
Those who must draw their place of residence would be potentially excluded from the voting process if these laws passed. To quote Bobbie Ibarra for the Huffington Post (9/22/2012), “Individuals experiencing homelessness face several barriers when trying to vote. One of the major hurdles is establishing residency. In order to do this, you must provide a mailing address… Individuals experiencing homelessness do not have a steady residence and keeping documents such as a birth certificate is challenging if not an unsurmountable task.”
According to an article on homeless Americans’ voting rights (Sasha Stumacher, journalism.nyu.edu.htm), Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless has stated that “…poor people and homeless people…tend to vote more Democrat than Republican.” This fact is not insignificant to the conversation on voter suppression laws. However, Neil Donovan, the executive director of the NCH, has said, “Only one-tenth of un-housed persons actually exercise the right to vote, and over the years, the number has been fairly consistent.” But the issue of homelessness and voting is deeper than whether the center-right can demographically manipulate an electoral victory over the center-left. The issue is whether citizens and legal residents of the United States can exercise the one right that yields access to all other rights.
September 30th was the second-to-last day of National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week, an operation of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Their activities in Boston and Cambridge and every other city are crucially important to this country — not only for those without homes, not only for the Democratic Party, but for all Americans. When one voter is disenfranchised, all voters’ rights are trampled. As the NCH’s 2012 Voter Registration Manual rightly puts it, lending poetry to a sense of helplessness that many of us can relate to:
“There isn’t a way that I can encourage America’s homeless to vote.
There isn’t a way that I can encourage America’s homeless.
There isn’t a way that I can encourage America.
There isn’t a way that I can encourage.
There isn’t a way that I can.
There isn’t a way.
–Samuel Needham with Alison Clark and Jessica Guay