Voting for people experiencing homelessness

Homeless person sitting next to the sidewalk with text reading "Voting for people experiencing homelessness"

By Frances King, WashCo Dems Communications Team

In 2000, Oregon became the first state to vote entirely by mail and remains the only state to do so. In the age of COVID-19, mail-in ballots have obvious advantages. However, it does pose challenges for unhoused populations as well as evacuees and displaced persons who cannot access or have lost their housing due to the recent wildfires. Not having either a physical or mailing address can seem like an insurmountable obstacle to voting. Luckily, that is not the case in Oregon.

There is a growing movement to retire the term “homeless” when referring to people who do not live in a traditional house or apartment. This is because of the concept of what a home is not something that can be reduced to a house or apartment. In order to more effectively provide services for individuals experiencing housing insecurity, it is important to expand on what it means to have a home. It is tempting to complicate what it means to have a home by relying on schmaltzy and cliched concepts such as, “Home is where the heart is.”  In reality, humans have the capacity to create homes in unexpected places in extraordinary circumstances. If individuals encounter long term barriers to finding more traditional housing, they might turn untraditional spaces such as tents, cars, or abandoned buildings into new homes. Thus, we should examine the concept of home and what it might look like for different populations. However, we should not downplay the challenges of not having a physical or mailing address. Not having access to a mailing address can make it difficult or impossible to receive state or federal identification, seek long-term employment, or have access to some medical services.

While we cannot fix housing insecurity completely in the next few months, there is some good news. Lacking an official residence or mailing address should not stop anybody from voting in the upcoming 2020 elections. In order to vote, all that is needed is an identifiable physical address or location. This does not need to be a house or other building. It could be a shelter, motorhome, park, or camp under an overpass. It simply needs to be an identifiable location in the county the voter lives in. This physical location does not need to be the same as the voter’s mailing address. If the voter does not have access to a mailing address, they may use the office of the county clerk. If the voter was displaced by recent wildfires, they can change their mailing address to reflect where they are living temporarily or if the voter is an evacuee and is unsure of where they will be living during the election, mail can be held at their local post office for the voter to retrieve.

The important date to remember is October 13th which is the last day to register to vote. If the voter does not have a state ID or driver’s license, the voter should allow additional time to register as there are a few extra steps to finish registration. If the voter ends up having to move and is unable to update his or her registration in time, it is possible to cast a provisional ballot at the county elections office of the new residence. Oregon has a centralized system that will catch and nullify duplicated ballots erasing the previous ballot.

The upcoming elections are going to be among the most important we will ever see. Given the recent and extensive destruction due to wildfires and rising numbers of unhoused individuals due to economic uncertainty, the lack of a physical or mailing address should not stop any eligible voter from casting their vote.

The following resources can help people experiencing housing insecurity for any reason with voting.