Voting for All Americans: People Experiencing Homelessness

8/19/2021

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This page is part of NCSL's Voting for All Americans Series.

Overview

Voting in the United States is based on geography: Where voters live determines what races and ballot measures they can vote on. People who don’t have a permanent address still have the right to vote—but it’s often not easy. This group includes those without a home, those experiencing housing insecurity or unstable housing, those living in their cars, those living from couch to couch and those in a transient state.

Many states require voters to have proof of address and identity to register to vote. How does that work for someone without either? In addition, if one can successfully register, how do election officials communicate with people without an address?

People experiencing homelessness may face distinct challenges regarding voting: proof of address, identification, transportation, access to information and more. Perhaps the greatest, most unique challenge for voters experiencing homelessness is the inability to register without proof of address. At the same time, some of these problems are not unique to people experiencing homelessness, and solutions to the challenges they face often aid other voters as well. For example, many low-income voters also may lack transportation and may have difficulty acquiring proper identification documents. Voters who move frequently may have trouble keeping their registration up to date with each move, making it more difficult to vote.

The following sections outline:

  • Population and Turnout by State
  • Potential Impediments to Voting
  • State Policies on Voting and Their Potential Impact
  • State Laws That Address Residency, Homelessness and Voting
  • Recent Legislation Specifically Addressing Voting
  • Resources and Acknowledgments

Population and Turnout by State 

According to the limited data on voter turnout among people experiencing homelessness, this group’s registration and turnout may be lower than the average population.

Even with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the locations and demographics of those experiencing homelessness are difficult to obtain due to their transiency, lack of address and lack of identification. Despite these difficulties, some facts and numbers are provided below.

The homeless population across the United States in 2020 was 580,466, according to the Point-in-Time (PIT) estimates released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

About 1 in 10 people experiencing homelessness vote in a typical election year, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. However, registration affects turnout. According to 2008 data, the most recent available, roughly 60% of the homeless population were U.S. citizens over age 18, but only 1 in 3 were registered to vote. Of course, registration numbers vary widely based on the state and the interests of individual voters.

Overall, many barriers to this population voting are also barriers to registration.

Table. Percent of people experiencing homelessness by state in 2020.

State

Percentage of People Experiencing Homelessness

State

Percentage of People Experiencing Homelessness

Alabama

0.07%

Montana

0.14%

Alaska

0.27%

Nebraska

0.12%

Arizona

0.15%

Nevada

0.22%

Arkansas

0.08%

New Hampshire

0.12%

California

0.41%

New Jersey

0.10%

Colorado

0.17%

New Mexico

0.16%

Connecticut

0.08%

New York

0.45%

Delaware

0.12%

North Carolina

0.09%

Florida

0.13%

North Dakota

0.07%

Georgia

0.10%

Ohio

0.09%

Hawaii

0.44%

Oklahoma

0.10%

Idaho

0.13%

Oregon

0.35%

Illinois

0.08%

Pennsylvania

0.10%

Indiana

0.08%

Rhode Island

0.10%

Iowa

0.08%

South Carolina

0.08%

Kansas

0.08%

South Dakota

0.12%

Kentucky

0.09%

Tennessee

0.10%

Louisiana

0.07%

Texas

0.09%

Maine

0.15%

Utah

0.10%

Maryland

0.10%

Vermont

0.17%

Massachusetts

0.26%

Virginia

0.07%

Michigan

0.09%

Washington

0.30%

Minnesota

0.14%

West Virginia

0.07%

Mississippi

0.04%

Wisconsin

0.08%

Missouri

0.11%

Wyoming

0.11%

 

Note: Percentages were calculated using the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau population values. For the total number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. per year, visit the Point-in-Time (PIT) estimates provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Potential Impediments to Voting

While generalizations can be dangerous, below we summarize some of the issues that can pose difficulties to voting for people experiencing homelessness. Interest in voting among people in this group may be impacted by the multiple issues they face on a daily basis.

  • No address. Proof of address is often needed for voter registration. However, acquiring the proper proof to register without the necessary documents (utility bills, driver’s license, etc.) may be difficult. In most cases, residency determines one’s eligibility to vote in local, state and federal elections. Therefore, in general, a lack of address makes registering, voting and following residency requirements more difficult.
  • No identification. Proof of identification is often needed to vote. While there are forms of identification without proof of address, such as a passport, difficulties regarding identification remain. For example, ensuring the safety of these documents can be arduous, since they are more likely to be lost, damaged or stolen if one is experiencing homelessness.
  • No transportation. If someone experiencing homeless is able to register to vote, they are still less likely to have reliable transportation or resources to travel to the polling place on Election Day. People experiencing homelessness are less likely to have the money to pay for a bus ticket, taxi, etc., to go to the polls.
  • Little access to information. While people experiencing homelessness may have access to cellphones and access to the internet through a public library or community center, they may not receive information about elections or campaigns at a personal address. Therefore, they must rely on getting mail through a homeless shelter for information and ballots (in the states that allow it). For those who do not have reliable access to the internet or computers, learning about elections and candidates can be difficult. Lastly, without a mailing address, those experiencing homelessness are less likely to receive flyers about campaigns and elections.

State Policies on Voting and Their Potential Impact

States have traditionally assumed that election policies that are good for most voters make good laws. Sometimes, though, election laws can have unintended or adverse consequences for some segments of the voting population, including those experiencing homelessness. Navigating the tension between a desire for uniformity for all voters (urban/rural, well-resourced/poor, politically active/disconnected, etc.) and a desire to help specific, marginalized demographics is a challenge in every state.

Below are a few examples of the ways people experiencing homelessness can be affected by policy choices and potential ways to mitigate those effects:

  • Registration requirements. The various definitions of residency and the residency requirement itself can pose difficulties for those experiencing homelessness because they may lack proof of address. Allowing voters to register by using the address of shelters, bus stations, corners or parks or by identifying on a map where their residence is can help (see bills below).
  • Vote by mail. While vote by mail decreases the need for transportation to the polls, which is beneficial for people experiencing homelessness, it causes challenges in terms of receiving a ballot at one’s address. Since people experiencing homeless do not have a permanent address, allowing them to receive ballots at a shelter or other location may help, especially in states with all-mail voting.
  • Ballot collection. Although receiving a ballot at a shelter, drop-off or other location may increase this group’s turnout, there still are challenges. For example, since boxes at the shelters or the drop-offs are often shared, ensuring that a ballot gets to the right person can be tricky. Those experiencing homelessness who wish to vote absentee or by mail could benefit from better access to stamps and drop-off locations and from laws that allow others to collect and return their ballots.
  • Ability to vote early. People experiencing homelessness may have difficulty getting to the polls on Election Day or have issues related to identification at the polls. In addition, they may have increased difficulty standing in long lines and may need assistance at the polls. Increasing early voting options could be beneficial to this population since it gives them more time to register and get to a polling place, rather than trying to do it all on Election Day. Similarly, limiting or eliminating early voting options could pose barriers to people experiencing homelessness.
  • Number and type of polling places. In general, increasing the number of polling places increases voter turnout, though vote centers and early voting sites—where anyone in the community can vote, not just those in the precinct—may also benefit voters experiencing homelessness by letting them cast their ballots at the location most convenient to them. A general increase in the number of polling places on Election Day, especially in areas where people experiencing homelessness tend to be, could also be beneficial. Including polling places at co-locations such as libraries, social service centers, food banks or shelters could increase turnout as well (see Houston’s Food Bank example).
  • Forms of voter ID. In states with voter ID requirements for in-person voting, lessening the requirements to acquire an ID for a person experiencing homelessness may make sense. Special state-issued ID cards for people experiencing homelessness that may not include photos, expiration dates or addresses may help.
  • Same-day registration. Same-day registration allows any qualified resident of the state to register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time. For those experiencing homelessness, it may be an increased burden to register one day and then prepare to vote days later. Same-day (or Election-Day) registration could benefit them.

How can legislators help people experiencing homelessness? Legislators can develop relationships with organizations that help people experiencing homelessness and learn about the conditions of this population in their state or district. They can encourage or even require that election information be screened for literacy level (something that would benefit many voters), and they can ensure that voting services are made accessible to those without stable housing. 

State Laws That Address Residency, Homelessness and Voting

Table. State Laws

State

Statute

Summary

Arizona

A.R.S. § 16-121

A homeless qualified elector may report a homeless shelter, the place at which the registrant is a resident, the county courthouse in the county in which the registrant resides, or a general delivery address for a post office covering the location where the registrant is a resident. A person who is otherwise qualified to register to vote shall not be refused registration or declared not qualified to vote because the person does not live in a permanent, private or fixed structure.

Colorado

C.R.S. 1-2-102

A homeless qualified elector shall identify a specific location within a county where the elector returns to regularly. This location may include a homeless shelter, a homeless services provider, a park, a campground, a vacant lot, a business address, or any other physical location. If the homeless elector’s registration residence does not include a mailing address, the elector shall also provide a mailing address.

Iowa

Iowa Code § 48A.5A; 48A.5

A person who is homeless or has no established residence may declare residence in a precinct by describing on the voter registration form a place to which the person often returns.

Illinois

10 ILCS 5/3-2

A mailing address of a homeless individual may include, but is not limited to, a shelter, a day shelter, or a private residence. Election authorities may by reasonable rules limit the place where voter registration of homeless individuals may be taken and the class of deputy registrars who may take the voter registration of homeless individuals. Nothing in this Act shall be construed to confer upon homeless individuals any additional privileges or benefits other than the right to register to vote and to be qualified to vote in an election.

Kentucky

KRS § 116.035

 

For a person who is homeless and lacks an established and fixed nighttime residence of regular return, he or she may elect a location with a fixed address as a place of habitation, which shall be considered his or her residence, and may include a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations or a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Maine

MRS Title 21A §112(15)

A person may have a nontraditional residence, including, but not limited to a shelter, park or underpass. A person’s residency is not subject to challenge on the sole basis that the person has a nontraditional residence.

Michigan

MCLS §168.11

“Residence” for registration and voting purposes means that place at which a person habitually sleeps, keeps his or her personal effects, and has a regular place of lodging.

Minnesota

Minn. Stat. § 201.061

For voting registration, a residence facility means a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter or dwelling designed to provide temporary living accommodations for the homeless.

Nebraska

Neb.Rev.St. §32-116.

Residence, if a person is homeless, means the county in which the person is living.

New Hampshire

RSA 654:7

The voter registration form for New Hampshire provides a place to put a homeless shelter down as an address. A homeless shelter or similar service provider to receive United States mail on your behalf.

New Mexico

N.M. Stat. Ann. § 1-4-5.3

 

Registration; lack of physical address.

If a qualified elector resides in an area lacking a specific physical address, the qualified elector shall be allowed to substitute a mailing address along with a description, such as a map or the latitude and longitude, indicating where the qualified elector resides. The qualified elector shall be assigned to a precinct based on the geographic description of where the qualified elector resides. The secretary of state shall issue rules regarding acceptable forms of non-physical addresses.

Oregon

ORS § 247.038

A qualified person who is homeless or resides in a shelter, park, motor home, marina or other identifiable location may not be denied the opportunity to register to vote.

Texas

Texas 13.002

The applicant's residence address or, if the residence has no address, the address at which the applicant receives mail and a concise description of the location of the applicant's residence.

Washington

Rev. Code Wash. (ARCW) § 29A.08.010

For voter registration, the residential address provided must identify the actual physical residence of the voter in Washington, with detail sufficient to allow the voter to be assigned to the proper precinct and to locate the voter to confirm his or her residence for purposes of verifying qualification to vote. A residential address may be either a traditional address or a nontraditional address. A nontraditional address consists of a narrative description of the location of the voter’s residence, and may be used when a traditional address has not been assigned or affixed to the voter’s residence or when a voter resides on an Indian reservation or Indian lands.

West Virginia

W. Va. Code § 3-2-5(a)(3)

The applicant's residence address, including the number and street or route and city and county of residence except: In the case of a homeless person having no fixed residence address who nevertheless resides and remains regularly within the county, the address of a shelter, assistance center or family member with whom he or she has regular contact or other specific location approved by the clerk of the county commission for the purposes of establishing a voting residence.

 

Recent Legislation Specifically Addressing Voting 

Throughout the past decade, many bills have been introduced to address homelessness and voting.

Below are introduced and enacted bills that relate to homelessness and voting:

Table. Recent Legislation

State

Year

Bill

Status

Summary

California

2016

CA S 928

Failed

Requires a homeless shelter that registers a person to vote to keep a record of the person it has registered to vote, including certain information about the person, and to transmit that information to certain government entities at least once per year. Authorizes an applicant who is a homeless individual to list the shelter, public space, cross street, or post office where he or she is living as his or her address on a driver's license or identification card.

Colorado

2018

CO S 233

Enacted

In registering to vote, the mailing address of a homeless individual shall constitute that individual's residence for purposes of registering or voting in any precinct in this state. A homeless individual who has no mailing address shall not be eligible to register or to vote. The mailing address of a homeless individual may include a shelter, a homeless service provider, or a private residence, but it may not include a post office box or general delivery at a post office.

Hawaii

2014

H 1889

Failed

Establishes a homeless person's bill of rights to guarantee that the rights, privacy, and property of homeless persons in the State including the right to move freely in public spaces, have equal opportunities for employment, receive emergency medical care, register to vote and to vote, have personal information protected, and a reasonable expectation of privacy, and receive equal treatment by State and county agencies.

Kentucky

2021

KY H410

Failed

Allows a person who is homeless and lacks an established and fixed nighttime residence of regular return an option to choose a non-traditional place of residence for purposes of voting

Tennessee

2012

H 1687 (companion bill to S 1475)

Failed

Allows homeless persons to vote at the county election commission office, requires such person to execute an affidavit of identity prior to voting.

Resources and Acknowledgments

State Resources

Special thanks to Diana Jordan, the NCSL election team's 2021 Bill Lane Center intern, for her work on this project. NCSL also thanks Andrew Fogel, McKayla Mulhern, Emily Reid and the policy researchers from the office of New York Senator Tim Kennedy for their assistance.