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National Issues

Some Homeless Citizens Face ‘Roadblocks’ When Registering PDF  | Print |  Email
By Dan Seligson, Electionline.org   
August 08, 2008
Lack of fixed, ID address challenges voters and administrators

This article appeared in the Electionline Weekly and is reposted here with permission.

Over breakfast in a church social hall in Washington, D.C., Roy Crabtree, a North Carolina native who currently has no fixed address, espoused strong and well-researched views about politicians’ responsibilities, campaign promises, the price of oil and the war in Iraq.

When November rolls around, however, Crabtree, who has voted in almost every election in recent years, said he was unsure whether he would participate.

“It‘s up in the air,” he said. “Registering to vote without a fixed address - that is definitely a roadblock to our people.”

Low-income and homeless citizens face some unique difficulties when registering to vote. Proof of identity, such as birth certificates or ID cards, can get lost, making it harder to fill out legal forms. Registration forms are not always readily available. And residency requirements can cause other headaches. With the 2008 presidential election looming just a half a year away, homeless and low-income citizens might face a few complications – but it can be done.

Whether living in a fixed address or not, U.S. citizens can cast ballots, said Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“A homeless person should be able to vote even if they don’t live in a traditional dwelling,” Ozdeger said. “You can register even if you are living on the street.”

Judicial opinions in recent years have upheld the notion that requiring a traditional dwelling can pose a hardship to some voters. Court decisions from a number of states have stated that street corners, parks and other public places can be used to establish local voting precincts, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports on its Web site.

However, election officials say a valid mailing address is still a necessity. Once a registration has been processed, a confirmation card is sent through the mail. If it is returned as undeliverable, the person might end up not being registered.

Local election officials from Arlington County, VA and the District both said they are well aware of the challenge homeless people face when establishing domicile. Local organizations, including shelters, churches and community groups can provide addresses that will be considered valid by registrars.

“We’re familiar with the addresses,” said Donna Patterson, deputy registrar for Arlington County. “We know the people at the shelters and the churches where mail will be accepted for people who don’t have homes.”

Bill O’Field, spokesman for the District of Columbia’s Board of Elections and Ethics who left his post in June, said in May that his department will accept non-traditional addresses for people without fixed addresses.

“Since early 1980s, D.C. has allowed homeless people to register to vote with an address because of what the [registration] form says,” O’Field said. “So if it’s at the corner of 4th and E, we accept that address, but we need a mailing address for them to send them a voter information card.”

O’Field said registration materials are available throughout the city, at police stations, fire houses, public libraries and public assistance offices. Also, the department will send representatives to address groups interested in registering homeless citizens in the District.

Private organizations around the city offer assistance to homeless people seeking to register to vote. Miriam’s Kitchen, at 24th and G streets, Northwest D.C., for example, offers voicemail services and a post office box for homeless people to stay in touch. That post office box can also be used as an address for voter registration.

While establishing residency requirements in the area can be established with the help of local organizations, a new crop of voter identification requirements that have been gaining a foothold across the country could be a more difficult barrier to overcome.

An Indiana law that requires all citizens to present a government-issued photo ID before voting was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, only two other states - Florida and Georgia - have similar requirements, though some legal experts say more laws could be on the way.

“It can be difficult for a homeless person to maintain ID documents because they move around so much and may be subjected to police sweeps, encampments that get cleared out and the destruction of their personal belongings,” Ozdeger said. “They’re already at risk of losing an ID. Once a homeless person loses a birth certificate, it’s very difficult to get a new photo ID.”

This article was modified from a piece that originally appeared in Street Sense, a newspaper in Washington, D.C. that focuses on issues relating to poverty while creating economic opportunities for people who are experiencing homelessness. For more information, go to www.streetsense.org. 
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