More Homeless People Expected to Vote This Fall

July 29, 2008 - 2:40 PM
Among the record number of voters expected to cast ballots this fall may be an increase from an often-invisible population - the homeless.
More Homeless People Expected to Vote This Fall (image)

Among the record number of voters expected to cast ballots this fall may be an increase from an often-invisible population - the homeless.

Bremerton, Wash. (AP) - Among the record number of voters expected to cast ballots this fall may be an increase from an often-invisible population - the homeless.

Advocacy groups and shelters across the country have stepped up efforts to register the 3.5 million people who drift in and out of homelessness in the United States.

"Just because we're homeless or low income doesn't mean we don't have an opinion," said Estelle Bearcub, who plans to vote for Barack Obama. "It's our right to vote. And it's our right to have our opinion count, too."

The homeless have sometimes struggled to participate in the political process, in large part because of requirements in Washington and 39 other states that voters list a mailing address.

Volunteers encourage transient voters to use the address of the shelter or soup kitchen they frequent in order to receive an absentee ballot. In states that require a physical address, voters can list a park or intersection where they sleep.

Bearcub has an absentee ballot delivered to the soup kitchen where she eats lunch most every day.

"It works pretty well," she said, standing outside Bremerton's Salvation Army post, where a banner announcing a voter registration drive flapped in the breeze. "They keep it real safe. We've never had any problems."

Inside the Salvation Army, volunteer Walter Washington acknowledged that some homeless people don't care about politics.

"But others, they know what's going on, and they have their views," he said.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said his agency's efforts have been particularly effective this year because of intense interest in the presidential race.

"I've never seen it like this," said Stoops, who has been registering homeless voters since 1984. "We're going to see increased turnout across the board."

In West Palm Beach, Fla., advocates registered more than 100 people in a week. Now they're scrambling to train volunteers to continue the work through September.

"Our main goal is to dispel the myth that because they don't have a roof over their head, they're not entitled to the vote," said Rita Clark, the county's homeless coalition director.

In Portland, Ore., a recent drive by the Sisters of the Road homeless advocacy group registered more than 400 homeless voters, twice as many as the agency registered in 2004.

Patrick Nolen, who organized the effort, said repeated visits by presidential candidates to Oregon heightened interest in registration among the homeless. But many homeless voters were also concerned with local races.

Portland's homeless pay especially close attention to laws prohibiting sitting or lying on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Anti-camping laws prevent them from storing bedding on public property.

"I heard many a discussion about which city councilor supported the sidewalk and anti-camping laws," Nolen said. "Those types of decisions affect them a lot more than other voters."

In Washington state, some government agencies even accept mail for homeless voters during election season. In Seattle in 2004, officials allowed more than 500 people to receive ballots at the county administration building, which runs a free shelter on its loading dock during the winter.

Some officials worry about potential election fraud involving homeless voters.

After studying data from the 2004 election, Milwaukee police in March reported a heightened risk of voter fraud among the homeless, because many of them were registered in multiple locations.

Efforts to register homeless voters will continue throughout the summer, culminating in a 50-state effort slated for late September.

"It's their right," Nolen said. "There are very few reasons why you can't vote. In most places, it's only if you're incarcerated or if you're dead."