Why can’t Homeless People be Allowed to Vote?

I’m learning one thing good,” she said. “Learnin’ it all the time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.

— Ma Joad, from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

Decades ago I was scheming about how to get homeless people out of their dilemma.  The mountain they have to climb is steep.  If you’re on the street, it’s pretty hard to move from there to a good job, because you don’t even have a place to shower or wash your clothes.  Many are mentally ill or addicts, compounding things.

And the first priority, survival, means spending much of one’s time trying to find food, shelter, clothing to protect from the cold of winter, and other basic needs.

There is no simple answer, but certainly one of the things needed is for them to acquire power.  The homeless are in many ways the most powerless people in our society next to prison inmates.  They can’t even legally vote in many states, but most people are unaware of this, including most legislators.

Federal and state governments pretend to offer universal suffrage, but those who rule behind the scenes don’t really want more people to vote.  They dragged their feet for over a century before allowing women to vote, and before the Voting Rights Act most people of color found it to be near impossible to register to vote.

We have one of the lowest voting turnouts among nations on the planet, and nothing is done about it by those in power, who prefer it this way.

Today we are down to two large groups who find it extremely difficult to vote in most states — ex-convicts and the homeless.

I have never understood why people who have “paid their debt” to society, as we say of ex-convicts, are then again punished by denying them the right to vote.  It’s bad enough that they have difficulty finding a job with a prison record.

In the case of homeless people, my state of Virginia and most other states, have a law requiring that one must be registered some time before an actual voting day with a home address.  Homeless people don’t have a home address.

If they give the address of the doorway in which they sleep one night, they may not even make it through that night before a cop tells them to move.  If they’re fortunate enough to get into a homeless shelter, it is commonly for one night with no guarantee they will be allowed back after that.

I have watched as homeless men crawled out of icy doorways to come for plain grits I doled out to them from a table set up on the street.  As I watched men with ice in their beards come for the meager food, my mind often echoed the line, “This is the richest nation on earth, this is the richest nation on earth….”

I am relieved that on those occasions at least the women and children were allowed into crowded shelters.  A fourth of America’s homeless are children, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman homeless on the streets for any length of time who hadn’t been beaten and raped.

Decades ago I devised a plan to give a little power to the homeless.  It would be to see if I could get the law changed to make it expedient for homeless people to vote.  To do so, homeless people would be allowed to register at the nearest voting precinct and would not be required to have a specific address.

I met with Representative Mary Christian, a magnificent Black lady who then served in Virginia’s House of Delegates, and gave her my plan.  The House of Delegates succeeds the House of Burgesses which first met in Jamestown in 1619, and is the oldest legislative body in the New World.  In 1619, the first slaves of America’s English colonies also arrived here in Virginia, so Mary couldn’t have served as a legislator then, or most of the time since.

Mary, a champion of the poor, gave me her best “That’s a devious plan” smile, reached out and hugged me, and she carried the idea to Richmond, capitol of the Old South, where she stirred the pot until I was invited to speak before the Constitution Committee to see if I could change the antiquated Virginia law.

I could get no other support– those feeding the hungry thought I was crazy to spend time on changing this law when there’s so much need to put effort into acquiring food, and thereafter, shelter and so much more (shoes, a job, a dental appointment) for the homeless.  The medical needs of the homeless are staggering, but it’s hard to even think about that when people are first in need of scarce food and shelter.

Not having a car in those days (I rode a bicycle, putting the money saved into helping those who help the homeless and hungry) I was able to find a ride to Richmond, about a hundred miles from my home.  I had no way to get back but would deal with that later in the day.

I stood before the Constitution Committee, about a dozen legislators who showed me by the look on their faces that they didn’t give a damn about the issue.  I said a few words and was immediately interrupted by a delegate who insisted that I hurry.  Every sentence was challenged by one of the delegates, with a nonsensical interruption to question what I was saying, so I had to stop to explain the law to each interrupter, and the circumstances, about which they were completely ignorant.  I tore apart every challenge to what I was saying.

For instance, they challenged that the homeless would be given rights nobody else had.  I responded by pointing out that military people serving abroad could easily vote by absentee ballot even though many could not show they had a home address in Virginia at the time they voted.

It went on like this for some time, and the group of delegates were getting surly when I was angrily told that they had all they needed from me.  Between the lines one could recognize that most of them had nothing but disgust for homeless people, others appeared to be bored with the subject.

Homeless people don’t contribute money to their election campaigns, and homeless people don’t vote, so there was no need to pay attention to them, the legislators obviously opined.  This, of course, perpetuates the ignoring of the homeless which goes on decade after decade. The legislators are there to represent, primarily, people of means who generously stuff their pockets.

But I had backed the delegates into a position from which they could not deny that under existing law the homeless could not legally vote, and they were very upset about my pointing such a thing out to them.  They obviously wanted to just throw the idea out, their original intention in attempting to discourage me from speaking.

I was told to wait by Mary, who was not on the Constitution Committee, and she later met with me, gushing that I had accomplished the impossible.  She said I had gotten further than anyone with the issue, and that the delegates had not shot down the idea as expected.

But they had tabled it, their way of killing it.  They simply would not find time to go back and look at it again in the months and years which followed.  Nothing ever came of it.

This was decades ago, and since, I’ve encouraged younger people to attempt to challenge the system, but they also failed.  The voter registration application now reads  “All applicants must provide a street address/description of their physical dwelling place.”

It also states that “A materially false statement on this form constitutes the crime of election fraud, which is punishable under Virginia law as a felony.  Violators may be sentenced up to 10 years in prison, or up to 12 months in jail and/or fined up to $2,500.”

Imagine being homeless and having to worry about a ten year prison sentence for filling out a voter registration form that might be questioned.  Would voting be worth it?  Similar laws exist in many of the states.

In my dreams I see a time when legislators all over the nation will have to wonder if homeless people (millions are homeless at least some of the time during any given year in the USA) are being organized to vote.  I can see the tables we set up on the streets, with stacks of registration forms beside the grits and coffee, our volunteers getting them to sign up and promise to vote, perhaps even for someone who would represent them, such as a Green Party member.

It is a minimal step toward getting government leaders to recognize that our fellow human beings are hungry and homeless, and hopefully, mad as hell and willing to help vote the heartless bastards who toil to transfer everything to the billionaires, out of office.  That’s the primary reason legislators make it so difficult for public interest candidates to get on the ballot, or for those in the best positions to recognize injustice to register to vote.

Jack Balkwill is an activist in Virginia. He can be reached at libertyuv@hotmail.com Read other articles by Jack.