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Voting While Homeless

No U.S. state requires voters to prove that they have a traditional residence, but Americans experiencing homelessness still struggle to cast a ballot.

Nick Oxford/Reuters

On Election Day morning, Markita Kornegay waited to vote in a line that stretched around the block from a side entrance of Miner Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Kornegay knew the drill: She’d voted for President Barack Obama at this polling place before, which was around the same time her son was born. But she wasn’t sure exactly what to expect this morning. She and her family now reside in a shelter for the homeless.

With three young children in tow, Kornegay told a poll worker that she needed to register to vote. She told the volunteer that she still receives her mail where she used to live, at a low-income apartment complex on Benning Road NE, the same address that appears on her driver’s license. But she doesn’t have any form of identification or official mail, not even a utility bill, that lists her current address as the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE—one of a dozen or so motels that the city leases as shelter space for families experiencing homelessness.

After some deliberation, Kornegay says, a poll worker told her that she was not in the correct “region” to vote. She needed to go to Mount Rainier, a nearby suburb in Maryland. That made no sense to Kornegay: She is a D.C. resident. “The shelter is not even five minutes away from here,” Kornegay says. “I feel irritated, because I came all the way here for nothing.”

Kornegay has more reason than most to make her voice heard in this election. While the District of Columbia’s three electoral college votes are a safe bet to go Clinton, the ballot includes several important local contests, including two At-Large D.C. Council positions and one seat on the D.C. State Board of Education. D.C. is currently implementing a controversial plan to build a series of shelters throughout the city and struggling with an affordable housing crisis, issues that directly affect Kornegay and her family.

“I can’t do nothing, because I’m not dragging my kids to another part [of the D.C. area] to vote,” Kornegay says.

Residents who live temporarily without a permanent address face enormous obstacles to voting. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many people experiencing homelessness lack the appropriate identification documents required by some states to register or to vote. Many homeless people also (incorrectly) believe that they must prove that they have a traditional residence to vote, even though no state has any such requirement. This year, the Coalition launched a campaign, “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote,” in hopes of helping organizers run more successful registration drives among the homeless.

Across the country, voters must weigh an array of city and state ballot measures and local races that directly affect the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Shelters in downtown Los Angeles have held registration drives for the city’s homeless, who will have the opportunity to vote on Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to build permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. Voters in San Francisco will vote on a ballot measure to prohibit tents and encampments on public sidewalks.

More broadly, voters in four states—Washington, Colorado, Arizona, and Maine—will decide on statewide minimum-wage hikes. Baltimore, Portland, Oregon, and at least 10 other cities will vote on affordable-housing measures designed to prevent more families from falling into homelessness.

Accordingly, city and state officials, working alongside nonprofit organizations and volunteers, have worked to turn out voters without addresses. Colorado’s secretary of state signed on to an initiative to encourage people experiencing homelessness to register to vote, for example. Congregations and faith-based organizations usually make homeless voter registration and transportation a part of their outreach around Election Day. Municipal and regional advocacy groups, such as the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, have helped to make sure their votes count.

But the voting gap between low-income and higher-income earners is vast. In the 2012 presidential election, less than 50 percent of voters earning under $10,000 a year participated in the election; in the same election, more than 80 percent of those making $150,000 or more a year voted. Nearly 100 percent of the top 1 percent voted. Class bias is one of the clearest effects in U.S. elections. As Demos’s Sean McElwee observes, across the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections, “there was only one instance of a poorer income bracket turning out at a higher rate than the bracket above them.”

At the polling place in Northeast D.C., the precinct captain explained to me after the fact that Kornegay’s vote was lost to miscommunication. She should have voted on a special ballot in another D.C. precinct—at the Mt. Horeb Baptist Church Annex, 2.5 miles away, as it turns out. Then, Kornegay would have two days to produce a government form of some kind listing the shelter as her address in front of the D.C. Board of Elections in order to certify her vote.

Miscommunication alone doesn’t account for the obstacles that prevented Kornegay from voting; even had she been given prompt, direct instructions, her single civic errand might have turned into three or four different trips. Overturning the persistent class bias in U.S. elections will mean making it easier for voters at every income level to participate in elections—especially those who have the most on the line.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.