Empowering our Neighbors: Whether they Have a House or Not

To those of you who have filled out a voter registration form the process may seem pretty simple. Check a box that you’re a citizen, you’re over 18, your name, and… your address.

For 2% of my hometown of DC’s population, filling in a permanent address is not that simple. This 2% represents the number of DC residents who are experiencing homelessness. Of this 2% only 30% are registered or aware of their right to vote.

Despite how it may appear on the traditional voter registration forms, a person cannot be denied the right to vote simply because they do not have a permanent address. A New York court ruling in 1984 affirmed this basic right, which then applied to all 50 states of the Union. Still – there are challenges to registering in practice. Many states require a mailing address, while some allow for a street corner or shelter that the individual may spend the majority of their time.

The reality is individuals who experience homelessness have limited access to information on their own voting rights. We’re talking nearly 8,000 people in DC alone who are unaware of their right to vote as US citizens, permanent address or not. And that’s just DC. What if we apply that to our country at large? Imagine the untapped force that has yet to vote on the issues that directly impact their lives. Issues of healthcare, minimum wage, and housing programs are all hot topics on the floors of Congress that affect the economically disadvantaged more than any other group.

So, how can we empower this immense demographic? The organization, Accountable to All, has taken on the challenge of registering DC residents who are experiencing homelessness. Accountable to All takes the voter registration forms directly to their target population - the soup kitchens and food pantries of the DC area.

Here, Accountable to All provides information on voter eligibility, connects them to their local officials, and compiles voter introductory letters so that new registrants can immediately express their concerns. And… as Headcount is familiar with…  registers voters on site.

The organization focuses on a different ward of DC each month guided by the Point in Time Census, which studied the experience of homelessness in the eyes of DC residents. Now, in their fourth month they have registered nearly 23 voters.

In a democracy where we give every of-age citizen the right to vote we cannot create barriers that exclude an already silenced minority. The exclusion of even one group threatens the democracy we ourselves may enjoy.  As lovers of democracy, it is our responsibility to empower our fellow neighbors, whether they have a house or not.