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The Homeless Have Voting Rights but Face Many Hurdles

The Trump administration's ban on evictions will prevent millions from losing their homes ahead of the election. Those who are already homeless, however, may find themselves disenfranchised.

A Florida resident updates her voter information.
A Florida resident updates her voter information. Registration is down across the country since the pandemic started.
TNS/Greg Lovett/
Millions of renters across the country can now breathe a sigh of relief. On Tuesday, the Trump administration imposed a nationwide ban on evictions, under the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Renters who earn less than $99,000 per year (or $198,000 for couples who file joint income taxes) can’t be evicted for failure to pay rent, as long as they attest they would become homeless or have to live with more people in close quarters. The restriction will be in place until the end of the year.

“I want to make it unmistakably clear that I’m protecting people from evictions,” Trump said.

Up to 43 percent of renters, or 40 million people, were potentially facing eviction by the end of the year, according to an estimate from the Aspen Institute. They will still have to come up with the money for back rent eventually, barring some massive rent-relief measure.

Averting widespread homelessness during a pandemic has been a widely shared policy goal. Trump’s action followed closely behind state efforts to keep people in their homes. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill giving California residents who have lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic another five months before they can be evicted. That same day, Gov. Steve Sisolak extended Nevada’s moratorium, which was set to expire the next day, for another 45 days, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended his state’s moratorium until Oct. 1.

Having millions of people potentially turned out of their homes right before an election could have contributed to problems with voting, especially given dramatic increases in voting by mail. Evictions represented “one more catastrophe that could prevent many Americans from voting this fall: an upcoming wave of evictions,” the liberal magazine Mother Jones warned last week.

That potential catastrophe has now been averted, but the scenario nevertheless highlighted the hurdles that people who are experiencing homelessness or are having to crash with relatives or friends face when it comes to voting. One recent study found that foreclosures dampen voter turnout.

“Disenfranchisement of people experiencing homelessness is a problem,” says Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center. “Voting by mail is really not an option, unless someone has regular access to mail. There are some states that require a permanent address in order to cast a vote.”

Maintaining Voting Rights

In every state, individuals who are homeless retain the right to vote. “It’s a misconception that a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness don’t vote,” says Eric Samuels, president of the Texas Homeless Network. “They do, but they have issues with things like registering. If you move frequently, you have to keep up with registration.”

In some states, voters are not required to provide a permanent address – or any address. They can simply list a landmark, such as an intersection. “If they spend every night sleeping under the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge in Bangor, they can register to vote in that precinct,” says Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. “We cannot turn down voter registration from those people because they don’t have a fixed address.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration, meaning people can register as late as Election Day, but Ohio voters must register 30 days ahead of an election. If they move during that last month, or start sleeping on someone else’s couch, their registration is no longer valid.

“If you move within that 30-day window prior to the actual election, you get into a more gray area,” says Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “Technically, you should vote at the address where you registered. If you’re in limbo, the only thing you can do legally is cast a provisional ballot.”

Ohio is one of the states that occasionally sends out pieces of mail to voters to make sure their mailing address is current. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court gave its blessing to the state’s system of purging voters who fail to respond to such mailings. In Georgia, tens of thousands of voters will be removed from the rolls this fall because absentee ballots mailed to them for the primary election in the spring were undeliverable.

Most people don’t think about updating their voter registration information until there’s an election, Dunlap says – not at the time when they move. For those who have lost their homes, it’s likely to be a secondary concern.

“When you’re in that unstable and sometimes dangerous situation, voting it not always very high on your priority list,” says Samuels.

While millions of Americans are requesting absentee ballot requests by mail (or receiving them automatically), that's not an option for individuals who lack access to mail. Many people who are homeless use shelters as their mailing address, but around the country, some shelters have been shut since March.

Registering Is No Longer Easy

Due to the pandemic, voter registration is down all over the country. In Kentucky, a net total of 21,548 new voters were added to the rolls between June 24 and July 31. Last year, 167,044 voters registered in June and July. In Virginia, voting registration declined by 40 percent in June, compared with June 2016.

“It’s a difficult time to do voter registration work,” says Brian Miller, executive director of Nonprofit VOTE, which collaborates with nonprofits and social service agencies to promote voter participation. “Field programs are on hold, DMVs are shuttered, what voter registration is happening is happening online.”

Online programs may not be as effective as standing outside a supermarket with a clipboard, or behind a card table on campus. “A lot of people rely on deputy voting registrars to help them register to vote,” says Louis Bedford IV, an election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a progressive advocacy group. “Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we’re not able to have people out in the field.”

People experiencing homelessness may not have Internet access, or may not be tuned into registration campaigns. Lack of housing typically means concentrating more on the day to day, or hour by hour, demands of seeking shelter and a meal than participating in civic obligations.

“It’s already devastating to be evicted,” says Claire Tran, an organizer with Right to the City Alliance, a housing coalition. “All of your stuff might be thrown out, including important documents. Some states require proof of homelessness to get an ID card – you need an ID to get an ID.”

But if being homeless also means facing barriers to voting, that doesn’t mean everyone gives up. Experiencing homelessness means having to be resourceful, including navigating bureaucratic systems. 

In Seattle, the Recovery Café provides meals and classes to homeless individuals. Its hours and offerings have been cut due to the pandemic, but it’s now holding monthly “resource days,” handing out food and hygiene kits, administering COVID tests and providing information about health care, employment and housing opportunities.

Voter registration is all part of the service.

“For us, it was definitely a success in having people interested in getting registered,” says Jean Adler Stean, Recovery Café’s community engagement manager. “We’ll try to keep having that book ready for people to register up until the November election.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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