Elections bureaucracy jeopardizes half of homeless voter registrations

(Photo/Bob Spencer)
(Photo/Bob Spencer)

Homeless people who registered to vote in Colorado risk being ejected from voter rolls if they don’t pick up a confirmation letter sent by their county clerk. The problem has less to do with partisan politics than with the nature of homelessness and the complexities of life without a permanent address. And, given those complexities, advocates estimate only about half of homeless people cast their vote.

Colorado law accommodates homeless voters by allowing them to register using any physical address. “It can be a park, a street corner or wherever they intend to return to in the evening,” says Meg Costello, public policy analyst with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. But the would-be voter must also provide a mailing address like a post office box, a shelter or a resource center such as the St. Francis Center in downtown Denver.

Here’s where things get a bit tricky. Under Colorado law, counties must send out confirmation letters to newly registered voters. Shelters and resource centers distribute mail to their clients, but if the client doesn’t show up within a couple of weeks, the center will typically return the mail to sender. For instance, the St. Francis Center returns unclaimed mail after a week. If the counties receive a returned voter registration letter within 20 days, they cancel the registration.

These policies inadvertently disenfranchise homeless voters. A homeless person may think that he or she registered and can vote on Election Day. But if that person didn’t pick up the confirmation notice, then he or she is out of luck when the shelter returns the mail to sender.

The problem is so widespread that one registration group simply stopped its outreach to homeless people in Denver. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, registered tens of thousands of voters in Colorado. Originally the group, which aims to increase civic participation in poor and minority communities, registered voters in homeless centers. But organizers came to see the effort as futile.

“We did some work in the shelters,” says Ben Hanna, Colorado’s ACORN director. “But what we were hearing from counties is that in most cases people were not getting on the rolls. … We didn’t want people to think they were registered when they weren’t. The counties were saying that there was a lot of returned mail coming back from the shelters. We stopped having people stationed at homeless shelters a couple of months ago.”

Alton Dillard, the Denver County Clerk and Recorder spokesman, said that his office never directed ACORN or other groups to stop outreach to the homeless. “Interesting rumor,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “We hadn’t heard this one. The county does not get involved in giving direction to voter registration drives.” Dillard says the county has no way of tracking homeless voters, since there is no such category in the registration database.

Homeless advocates say the problem could be fixed if shelters agree to hang on to election-related mail. “We continually ask shelters for the purpose of voter registration, ‘How about you let the person use your address for registering to vote?'” says Michael Stoops, acting executive director at the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Homeless people need to be reminded when they register that in the next few weeks, they should stop by to pick up the voter registration card.”

At St. Francis Center, voter forms are treated “like any other piece of mail,” says development director Andrew Spinks, and they are returned in a week if they are not picked up. He says that the organization lacks resources to accommodate voting, whether it comes to keeping mail or driving homeless people to the polls.

“We are helping people that need clothes and food or an ID so they can get an apartment or a job,” he says. “Voting moves away from that.”

But Stoops says that registering to vote can help the homeless in more ways than one. “That card, even though it has no picture, is their only form of identification in many cases,” he says. “That is one of their motivations for getting a card.”

Stoops adds that about half of registered homeless people turn out to vote. There are 20 shelters around the country that double as polling places, but not one in Denver. “Homeless people feel more comfortable going to places where they live and eat rather than registering and voting at a fancy downtown church or synagogue or courthouse,” he says.

Tony, a registered homeless voter in Denver who declined to give his last name, says that he plans on voting at an elementary school. He used the St. Francis Center address to register to vote, and he made sure to pick up his confirmation. “I’ve always registered to vote,” he says. “After becoming homeless, I thought I might need to re-register, so I went ahead and did it.”

A former public school teacher, Tony says that he’ll vote for GOP presidential candidate John McCain this election. “I’m a Republican,” he says. “I think it is the lesser of two evils. I don’t agree with what the other party stands for. … I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods. I think the wealthy class has taken the money and stolen it. My vote is for McCain. I just seem to trust him more.”

David Jenkins, another St. Francis Center voter, received his confirmation after registering to vote during the Democratic National Convention. Unlike Tony, Jenkins, an independent, will vote for Democrat Barack Obama. “I’ll put it this way,” he says. “This country has a whole lot of problems. Jobs have been shipped abroad. The only one who has said anything I can relate to is Obama. I don’t know the man personally, but the only thing I hope is that he tries to do some of the things he says he will.”

Stoop says that the homeless vote is more varied than most people think, with 60 percent of homeless voters identifying as Democrats, 20 percent as Republicans, and another 20 percent as independents. “Just like the black vote and the women’s vote cannot be taken for granted by any party, the homeless vote is likewise,” he says.

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