Your Address Could Determine Your Right to Vote. What if you don’t have one?
Not everyone has the financial means to replace a lost or stolen identification card. People experiencing homelessness may additionally struggle with accessing other proofs of identification and residency required to obtain a new identification card. Not having any identification can mean denied access to benefits or services and, in some states, the loss of the ability to vote.
While some states and the District only require identification during voter registration, others require a photo ID at the ballot box. North Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia all require photo IDs on Election Day. Other states accept non-photographic proof of identification, such as a bank statement with a voter’s name and address.
So what happens if a voter goes to the polls without an acceptable form of identification in their state?
In the states the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) calls “non-strict,” voters may sign an affidavit of their identity or the poll worker can vouch for them. Some states — Colorado, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Vermont — allow voters to vote on a provisional ballot. After Election Day, officials will check the voter’s eligibility and registration to determine if the provisional ballot can be counted. In those states, the voter does not have to take any further action. In New Hampshire, election officials mail a letter to anyone who signed an affidavit. The voters must return the letter to prove they are at the residence they listed.
In states the NCSL calls “strict,” a voter may have to return to an election office a few days after the election to provide identification. If the voter does not return to the office with an acceptable form of ID, their vote will not count.
There are exceptions to voter identification legislation in some states. Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin all make exceptions for people who have religious objections to being photographed. South Carolina’s allows exceptions if a person has a “reasonable impediment” to getting an ID and Tennessee allows exceptions for people who are “indigent.”
Congressmen Mark Pocan (D-Wis) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced House Joint Resolution 25 in January 2015 to, in-part, empower Congress to protect against infringements on the right to vote. The bill has been in committee since that time. “With more than 300 successful voting rights lawsuits over the last 2 decades, the Supreme Court striking down critical Voting Rights Act protections, and states across the South making it harder for citizens to vote, it is clear that more must be done to protect this cornerstone of our democracy,” said Congressman Steve Cohen, a supporter of the bill, in a press release.
According to The National Coalition for the Homeless, state election laws did not include pathways for unhoused people to vote until the 1980s. Pitts v. Black (New York, 1984), challenged a New York State Election Law provision that banned people experiencing homelessness from voting. The District Court found that this ban “disenfranchised an entire group of people, which is forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause.” It was determined that someone’s place of residence is the place “at the center of the individual’s life” or where they intended to stay, and where they can be contacted.
In the administrative hearing of In re-Application for Voter Registration of Willie R. Jenkins (D.C., 1984) the D.C Board of Elections ruled that a person’s intent to reside in a place means the location counts as their place of residence for voting purposes. They will then vote in the district where they reside. In D.C., a person can name the place they sleep as their place of residence, but they must list a mailing address of a place they have “sufficient ties.” Many unhoused people in D.C. get their mail sent to their service providers even if they do not reside at the center.
Also in 1984, Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless v. Tartaglione (Pennsylvania) ruled that a homeless shelter meets the requirements of residency set by the Pennsylvania Election Code. A voter’s mail can be received at the shelter and the person must vote in the district where the shelter is, even if they are living elsewhere.
In 1985, Collier v. Menzel (California) three people experiencing homelessness fought the Santa Barbara county clerk’s rejection of their voter registration applications. They had listed a public park as their place of residence. The court ruled that denying people their right to vote because they listed the park as their place of residence violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The park’s location would determine the district residents voted in. The court also said “people who were experiencing homelessness should be encouraged to register and vote in order to provide them with some greatly needed political influence and electoral power.
The Bd. of Election Comm’rs v. Chicago/Gray Area Union of the Homeless, Circ. (Illinois, 1986) ruled that an unhoused person can register to vote if they state under oath that they are homeless and present two pieces of identification. Before an election, mail will be sent to the listed mailing address with a prepaid return postcard to be sent back to the Board of Elections.
Fischer v. Stout (Alaska 1987) ruled that a homeless shelter or park bench are sufficient places of residence.
On July 29. North Carolina’s Fourth Circuit panel ruled that a North Carolina voting law discriminated on the basis of race. The New York Times reported the ruling is “possibly the largest rollback of voting rights since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” North Carolina legislators requested data on the ways different races use various voting practices. Fourth Circuit Federal Judge Diana Gribbon Motz found that once General Assembly received the data, they then created legislation that affected voting and voting registration. Motz cited these specific ways in which North Carolina legislators used data to create voting restrictions that disproportionately affected Black Americans:
1. The first part of the bill (SL 2013-381) was a law that would begin in 2016 that required voters to show photo IDs when voting in person. Motz wrote that the Black American demographic “disproportionately lacked” photo IDs. Before this law was created, all government issued IDs, even expired ones, were sufficient for voting. This new restriction excluded many of the alternative photo IDs used by Black North Carolinians, but not the IDs most of their White counterparts use.
2. The data requested by state legislators showed that early voting practices were prevalently used by Black Americans. After reviewing the data, the General Assembly then shortened the early voting period from seventeen days to seven. This included eliminating one of the two “souls-to-the-polls” days, where Black American churches provided transportation to voters.
3. Legislators requested data on the races of same-day registrants. North Carolina same-day registration allowed people to register at early voting sites the same day as they voted. Motz wrote that “same day registration also provided an easy avenue to re-register for those who moved frequently, and allowed those with low literacy skills or other difficulty completing a registration form to receive personal assistance from poll workers.” The district court found, “it is indisputable that African American voters disproportionately used [same-day registration] when it was available.” The court also found Black Americans were more likely to move between voting districts and would need to re-register more frequently. The court reviewed the errors frequently found in registration forms filled out by Black Americans and concluded that on-site assistance would benefit Black Americans. The new legislation (SL 2013-381) removed same day registration.
4. Legislators also inquired which races access provisional voting. Prior to the new legislation, the Board of Elections in every county was required to count ballots cast by voters who went to the wrong precinct but voted in the correct county. The data found that Black Americans “disproportionately voted provisionally.” SL 2013-381 eliminated all out-of-precinct voting.
5. The requested data found that Black Americans disproportionately used preregistration, which permitted sixteen and seventeen year-olds to indicate their intent to vote while they got their driver’s licenses or attended mandatory high school registration drives. Once pre-registered teenagers turned eighteen, they were automatically registered. SL 2013-381 eliminated this pre-registration.
This bill was signed into law August 12, 2013. The same day the bill was signed, several organizations and individuals filed suit, including the League of Women Voters. The Plaintiffs filed on the basis that the new bill was not only a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but also that these changes were “motivated by discriminatory intent.” Also on the same day, the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP and others filed a separate action citing the same amendments. A group of young voters also filed a suit citing a violation of the Twenty-Sixth amendment.
From 2013 onward, the courts heard many of the suits from various groups and individuals. Judge Motz found that the district court did not appropriately address the concerns of citizens and her findings prompted the “reverse of the judgements of the district court.”
On a single night in Mecklenburg County, 78 percent of homeless individuals were found to identify as Black, according to a 2016 Point in Time Count (PIT). Mecklenburg County is the most populated county in North Carolina and includes the city of Charlotte within its borders. Statistically, Black homeless individuals in North Carolina face disproportionate challenges when trying to vote.
Judge Motz found that motivation to eliminate the pathways to voting many Black Americans use in North Carolina was an attempt to keep the political power of the state under one party’s control. “After years of preclearance and expansion of voting access, by 2013 African American registration and turnout rates had finally reached near-parity with White registration and turnout rates. African Americans were poised to act as a major electoral force. But, on the day after the Supreme Court issued Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), eliminating preclearance obligations, a leader of the party that newly dominated the legislature (and the party that rarely enjoyed African American support) announced an intention to enact what he characterized as an ‘omnibus’ election law.”
Obama won North Carolina in 2008, while Romney took the state in 2012. North Carolina is considered to be a swing state in this election, with both Trump and Clinton’s campaigns fighting to win it.
In Virginia, thousands of previously convicted individuals’ voting rights are hanging in limbo. In April 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe attempted to restore over 200,000 felons’ voting rights. A few months later in July, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that McAuliffe’s order was unconstitutional. “Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights. It is a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would file a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote,” McAuliffe said [EF3].
On August 22, 2016, McAuliffe announced his office will restore the voting rights to ex-offenders on an individual basis. Virginia law states that a previously convicted person can have their voting rights restored by the Governor’s or court’s action.
Over 13,000 convicted people had their voting rights restored in April and taken away again. This was a disappointment to voters and to New Virginia Majority (NVM), a nonprofit community organizing group that helps register people in Virginia to vote. NVM offers help to all people in the state, but focused on groups of people who are disproportionately affected by laws like the ones that prevent people who have been previously convicted from voting. NVM is keeping up with any developments in McAuliffe’s attempt to restore voting rights and contacting the people affected with updates. “We don’t want to have hope be taken away from them again. So we’re working to let them know when they can register,” Matthew Rogers, NVM’s Northern Virginia Regional Field Director, said in an interview with Street Sense.
Rogers said that laws that prevent previously convicted people from voting disproportionately affect people of color and people who are struggling economically. “There needs to be a navigable system for people who are disenfranchised,” Rogers said.
In order to make voting as easy as possible, NVM’s involvement doesn’t end once a voter is registered. Rogers says organizers help voters understand their rights at the ballot box, what type of ID (must be a photo ID) they can present when they go to vote, and what district they can vote in. Once a voter is registered, organizers will call voters before the election to remind them to exercise their right to vote.
One of the issues NVM faces is many of the people they reach out to have already attempted to register to vote. Some filled out incomplete applications and were never notified that their registration was not finished, according to Rogers. Others filled out the forms correctly, only to have those forms be lost.
“I think this is a product of a lack of professionalism with the people collecting voter registration information. They ask for a lot of personal information, and sometimes people give false or incomplete information,” Rogers said. “Sometimes forms are not handled with care by the DMV. The DMV is not just focused specifically on voter registration.”
NVM also does outreach with people who are experiencing homelessness, both visiting shelters and on the street. “It’s really exciting when we can register someone who is homeless to vote. They were outside the system and are now being brought back in,” Rogers said.
Since 2013 voters in Virginia have been required to bring a photo ID to the ballot.
Wisconsin’s’ voter ID laws have changed over the years, often confusing voters. The first voter ID requirement was signed into law in 2011 by Governor Scott Walker. Supporters of the requirement said it was necessary to prevent voter ID fraud, but the law’s opponents say the requirement will affect mostly low income or minority voters, who they say tend to vote Democrat. The opponents see the requirement as a method used by Republican legislators to prevent Democrats from swinging Wisconsin to blue.
In 2012, an ID was required to vote in the primary election. In 2012, a Dane County Circuit judge ruled the ID law violated the state’s constitution, but his ruling was appealed by the Wisconsin Attorney General, J.B. Van Hollen. In April 2014, federal Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that the photo ID requirement violated the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth amendment of the Constitution. Judge Adelman wrote that the voter ID law would “prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.” He also ruled that Wisconsin’s voter ID laws disproportionately affect people of color and those in poverty.
“[T]he reason Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately likely to lack an ID [is] they are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, which in turn is traceable to the effects of discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and housing,” Judge Adelman wrote.
Judge Adelman also wrote that voter ID laws create a “false perception that voter-impersonation fraud is widespread,” when, in his findings voter ID fraud is not an issue in Wisconsin.
Despite Judge Adelman’s ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the ID requirement, but the courts could not decide on whether or not to enforce it. In March 2015, the Supreme Court said it would not hear the case, which meant the Voter ID law would go into effect. In April 2016, the 7th Circuit Court ordered a lower federal court to consider changing the law. In May 2016, Governor Scott Walker allowed voters without IDs to petition for an exception. In July 2016, Judge Adelman ruled that voters without the proper ID could vote in the 2016 general election by signing an affidavit.
On August 10, the 7th Circuit put a hold on the ruling, making the rules for the November election unclear to voters. If Wisconsin’s voter ID law were to be put into effect by November’s election it would be the first time voters would be required to bring their ID to vote in the presidential election.
Later in August, the court ruled that Wisconsin DMVs may mail anyone a free ID, as long as they come to a DMV once and begin the free ID process.
In Tennessee, where voter ID requirements are some of the strictest in the country, Democrat leaders recently called for changes to state and federal laws. The Democrats argue that the state’s voter ID laws — which require identification of either a state issued ID, a valid U.S. passport or a handgun carry permit with a photo — have led to a decrease in turnout.
“The key to take away with voter ID is that we have a number of ways to allow as many Tennesseans as possible to exercise their right to vote,” argues Adam Ghassemi, Director of Communications for Tennessee’s Secretary of State.
“Regardless of where they are in life, regardless of their economic status,” he added.
Ghassemi says provisions in state voter laws — including provisional ballots and free voter IDs for indigents — are mechanisms in place to help compensate for those who may experience barriers in voter registration.
A voter without valid ID can still show up on Election Day and cast a vote using a provisional ballot, but the voter must then return within two days after the Election Day to the election commission office to show a valid photo ID.
The state does offer free photo IDs to its residents if they swear under oath that they cannot pay for documents required to obtain the ID. But the requirements — including two proofs of Tennessee residency — can often prohibit those experiencing homelessness from registering. (Obtaining a photo ID also requires proof of citizenship and documentation of any possible name change.) Many people experiencing homelessness in Tennessee said that they were aware of the free ID availability and where they could sign up for it.
Criminal records, more specifically felony convictions, can often act as barriers to homeless persons going to the ballot. Tennessee lawmakers in 2006 outlined the conditions for restoration of an individual’s voting rights for a felony conviction on or after May 18, 1981. The approved guidelines for applying for restoration include the expiration of a maximum sentence; granted final release from incarceration or parole board supervision; any court order restitution paid; and any court ordered court costs paid. The restoration process includes obtaining a court order restoring the rights and bringing a certified copy of the original order to the proper county election commission. The list of requirements, money involved and forms is lengthy, and under state code, officials are only “urged” to provide information about the restoration process.
A recent opinion editorial published in Nashville’s The Tennessean by an election volunteer, Amy Kurland, sheds light on the barriers often generated by this process: “Four years ago, I decided to help one man through the process. It was expensive: There was a cost for getting records copied. It was terribly time-consuming — long lines at the courthouse and a ridiculous wait at the parole office. I had to go downtown for one part of the process and five miles away for the next part, and then back to the election commission. If I didn’t have a car, money and a whole day to work on this, I couldn’t have done it.”
In July 2016, The U.S Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled Texas must accept various forms of identification from voters during the November general election. The Fifth Circuit found that Texas’ Voter ID law is discriminatory to Blacks and Latinos, who frequently do not have the IDs previously required to vote. The IDs that will now be accepted at the ballot box are: a voter registration certificate, a birth certificate, bank statement, a current utility bill, a government check or a government document that lists the voter’s name and address, or an expired driver’s license as long it is less than four years past the expiration date. If a voter presents an alternative form of identification, they must fill out a form listing the reason why they do not have a government-issued ID, although poll workers are not permitted to question their reasoning. Voters with a government ID are required to present it when voting.
“The court pretty much established that anyone with an address or utility bill will be eligible. That still let’s out many of the homeless. Many use the Day Resource Center for an address or one of the other agencies in town,” said Steven Karnes, editor of Ft. Worth’s Journey street newspaper, in an e-mail.
The Fifth Circuit has also asked a lower court judge to investigate if the voting laws were made with the intent to discriminate. That investigation was encouraged to take place after the presidential election in November.
Since 2013 Kansas has required that voters bring proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate when they to register to vote. In 2016, Courts ruled that voters in Kansas can vote in federal elections for congress or the president. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that states could not force people registering to vote using the federal form to show proof of citizenship. The federal form asks people to indicate if they are citizens or not, but does not require proof. Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Secretary of State, decided that voters must show proof of citizenship to vote in Kansas’ local or state elections. In April 2016, Kobach told the Washington Post that obtaining proof of citizenship is a burden “so small as to be virtually nonexistent.”
“The only burden is finding your birth certificate in your desk or wherever you keep it and taking a picture of it with your smartphone or making a copy and sending it into the county or taking it in yourself,” Kobach said in an interview with the Washington Post.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Kobach and the case was ruled in their favor. In May of 2016, Judge Larry Hendricks ruled that people who can’t prove their citizenship are allowed to vote in local and state elections. Kobach appealed the judge’s ruling on the basis that allowing people who can’t prove their citizenship to vote allows undocumented people to participate in elections.
“The reason we have to do this is there is a significant problem in Kansas and in the rest of the country of aliens getting on our voting rolls. With so many close elections in Kansas, having a handful of votes that are cast by aliens can swing an election,” Kobach said in his interview with the Washington Post.
Kobach’s appeal was temporarily overturned in July, and a September 9 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling struck down the law permanently, along with similar requirements in Georgia and Alabama. Kansas election officers will now have to sort through thousands of paper records to identify voters who tried to register and were affected by the proof of citizenship requirement that began in 2013, reported The Wichita Eagle.
Kobach told the Eagle he estimated that 200 – 400 voters were affected statewide.
In April 2016, The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute, and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted over the removal of voters’ names from the register if they have not voted for six years. The advocacy groups that sued Husted claimed that the removal of inactive voters removed eligible voters from state records, including homeless people. Before removing voters’ names, the Ohio government mailed notices to the addresses voters’ listed. The lawsuit says mailing the notices directly affects people experiencing homelessness who have moved or cannot access their mail frequently. Under the law, those who had not cast a vote over a six year period would have to re-register. “Ohio is a place where it is easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Ohio Secretary of state Jon Husted has said of his state’s voting laws.
In June 2016, a judge ruled that Ohio’s ballet practices were unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The judge’s decision stated that the laws “disproportionately harm African-American voters.”
The current accepted forms of identification in Ohio are an unexpired Ohio driver’s license or state ID card, a military identification, an unexpired United States government or Ohio State issued photo ID with a current address, a current utility bill (includes cell phone bills) with the voter’s name and current address, a current bank statement with the voter’s name and current address, a current paycheck with the voter’s name and current address, a current government check with the voter’s name and current address, a current government document, excluding a notice of voter registration mailed by a board of elections, with the voter’s name and current address.
If a voter does not have of the previously mentioned forms of identification, they may cast a provisional ballot if they provide an Ohio driver’s license, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Once the provisional ballot is cast, the board of elections will review the information submitted by the voter. If the information is accurate, the ballot will be counted.
If a voter cannot provide any form of identification, they can still cast a vote using a provisional ballot. For their vote to count, they must go to the board of election within seven days of Election Day with proof of identification.
NEOCH provides many services to help register voters, including offering to come to a voter’s location to register them directly. NEOCH encourages homeless voters to vote early at the Board of Elections or by mailing in a ballot, as there is no ID requirement for that method of voting, a voter just needs the last 4 digits of their Social Security number.
On September 13, The U.S Supreme Court chose not to intervene in Ohio’s early voting case. The case looked to restore Ohio’s “Golden Week,” a week designed for Ohio voters to register and cast a ballot at the time.
“African American voters took advantage of Golden Week more than 5 times as often as White voters in 2012. Golden Week is an ideal time for homeless voters to register and vote,” Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless reported on their website.
The decision not to hear the case came after federal judges delivered different opinions on whether Golden Week would be part of Ohio’s voting legislation.
For more information about voter registration or to start your registration, visit www.usa.gov/register-to-vote. If you do not have internet access or need additional assistance, you can register in person with your local election office, department of motor vehicles or armed services recruitment centers. You may also fill out and submit a National Mail Voter Registration Form at public assistance offices (SNAP/food stamps, WIC, services for the disabled). You may also call the Election Protection hotline led, by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to answer questions and report problems with registration: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).
Amelia Knisely of Tennessee street paper The Contributor provided content for this report. Abby Hershberger contributed to this report. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, cited in the report, also publishes the street paper Cleveland Street Chronicle.