Today’s guest blog post was contributed by Hannah Gisness, a student at George Washington University, and Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
October is here with elections just around the corner! Last week I had the opportunity to participate in National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week. I worked alongside students from The George Washington University and advocates for The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). We successfully registered 137 individuals to vote.
For three days, we manned a table at the Martin Luther King Library in D.C and visited local parks to encourage and assist people in the voting and registration process. We were equipped with NCH’s 2012 Voting Manual, paper applications, pens, stickers, pamphlets from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, and registration and voting materials.
Each year in the United States, millions of people experience or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. According to the Census Bureau, of the 15,784,000 individuals from families making less than $20,000 per year, 63.7 percent were registered to vote and 51.9 percent voted in the 2008 presidential election. This year’s election will help determine many health care and housing rights important for low-income individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness. So it is imperative that this population be aware of their voting rights.
One of the biggest misconceptions about voting is that you need a home in order to vote. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics’ voter registration application does require two addresses – a residential address, and a mailing address to which the confirmation will be sent. But an individual who is experiencing homelessness can use the address of a shelter, a friend’s house, or the street address where they sleep for the residential address, and many shelters in D.C. allow their guests to use their addresses for the mailing address. St. Steven’s Church in Colombia Heights has also volunteered the use of their address.
At the library, we asked each person walking by if they would like to register to vote. We were pleasantly surprised when we found that many of the people who approached our table were already registered. For those people, we made sure they were aware of D.C.’s early voting dates. The 2012 election will be held on Tuesday, November 6. The ballot times are not always convenient for many people, but D.C. offers two weeks of early voting leading up to the election. Many people we talked to were unaware of this option, and we were able to provide dates and polling locations to about 150 additional people.
As we asked library guests and park inhabitants if they would like to register to vote, some passed us by, saying that they were ineligible, but a few of these individuals who thought they were ineligible did stop and talk with us. One woman whispered to me she had committed a felony. Fortunately, D.C.’s disenfranchisement restrictions are limited to those in prisons. The woman was so excited she could register to vote, she later returned with a friend who faced a similar situation. Another man we registered remarked that this would be the first election he would vote in since President Clinton was elected in 1992.
Many people were unsure if they were registered or if their registration was up to date. Conveniently, at the library we had access to computers, so people could electronically access their application in the Board of Elections and Ethics database and check their status and change information if they needed to.
The D.C. Board of Elections also provided us with hundreds of paper applications and information packets people could take home. Since we were using the D.C. Board of Elections application, we could not register residents of Maryland or Virginia. We were, however, able talk to them about their voting eligibility and explain where they could check out their states’ requirements.
Local shelters and advocacy groups in Atlanta, Denver, Cleveland, New York City and many other cities across the country also mounted voter registration efforts for National Homeless & Low-Income Voter Registration Week. In D.C. So Others Might Eat (SOME), which already registered 165 people earlier this year, registered another 105 voters.
In order for the registration efforts to be effective, we must continue encouraging individuals to vote and register at their polling places if they have not done so already. Volunteers and organizations can provide transportation – school buses, church shuttles, and taxis – to polling locations or plan walks to the polls. Shelter staff can set up mock voting booths for individuals to practice voting, and encourage well known community members to assist at the polls.
For individuals without a supportive network encouraging them to get involved in the voting process, or individuals who are unaware of their voting rights, the process could be much more difficult. This upcoming election is a crucial one for low-income individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness.
I am proud that our efforts have made it possible for 137 to participate in the electoral process this November.