Ricardo Soto turned old enough to vote 28 years ago, but he was too caught up in life on the streets to make it to the polls. He will vote for the first time in the Nov. 4 elections.
“It’s exercising my freedom,” he said with a smile. “I’m looking forward to making a difference.”
Soto, 46, and many other homeless people who have been left out of politics will finally have their say. Advocacy groups across the country have registered thousands of homeless and low-income people to vote for the first time in these elections, getting a large, underrepresented population involved in American democracy.
Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), a Washington-based advocacy group, said voting helps people feel included in society.
“We see voter registration to be an empowerment that helps homeless people flex their political power…and fight for their rights,” he said.
He said his organization’s “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” campaign, launched in 1992, has registered more than 25,000 new homeless voters this year.
There is no accurate count of the homeless population. Activists say that 3.5 million are homeless on any given night, although the latest government measurements, from January 2007, put that figure at 672,000.
Homeless or not, any citizen over 18 and not in prison or on parole is entitled to vote. NCH says only a third of eligible homeless and low-income Americans are registered. The group has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country.
Registration laws ask for information a homeless person may struggle to provide, such as a mailing address or identification. Advocacy groups help remove barriers to registration by encouraging the homeless to use the mailing addresses of local soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
But activists say too many homeless and low-income people don’t vote simply because they don’t realize that they’re eligible.
“It’s amazing how many times you hear, ‘Oh, I can’t vote because I’m homeless,’” said Patrick Nolen, a community organizer for the homeless advocacy group Sisters of the Road, which registered 440 homeless voters this year. “We have to do a lot of explaining to people that they can vote if they’re homeless.”
Organizations across the country, from NCH chapters to religious charities, participated in National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration week in September, though there is no official count of how many signed up to vote.
Nolen, who directed the Sisters of the Road effort, said people looked forward to exercising their rights.
“One guy sat in our office and cried for an hour, because it was the first time he could vote in 24 years,” he said.
In New York City, the size of the homeless population—the latest official city estimates hover around 38,000—encouraged many soup kitchens and shelters to act. The Bowery Mission, a Christian program for the homeless and Ricardo Soto’s current home, registered about 40 of its residents in October.
Calls to the Department of Homeless Services about their efforts were not returned.
NCH estimates that 70 percent of those who register show up at the polls. Activists argue that strong voter turnout by the homeless, roughly one percent of the U.S. population, could sway elections and call attention to their needs.
Perhaps more importantly, voting can be empowering for homeless people.
“Voting for the very first time makes people feel like they are citizens and equal to any other person in the country,” said Stoops, who has been registering the homeless to vote since 1984. “A homeless person’s vote has the same clout as Bill Gates’s vote.”
Merritt Olsen, a 38-year-old homeless man in Manhattan, agreed. He plans to make an hour-long trek to his district just to vote for Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate.
“I vote so I can have my say be there when we’re making history,” he said. “Plus, it’s just kind of fun to do.”
Not everyone is enthusiastic about homeless registration efforts, however. Charles Douglass believes it takes more than voting to feel included in society.
“Look, I’m homeless. It’s like I don’t matter,” said Douglass, 45, who refuses to vote. “If society really cared, it would give me a job and a place to sleep.”
Critics say homeless and low-income registration could lead to fraud, such as registering in multiple locations. Opponents also criticize an Ohio law allowing constituents to register and vote simultaneously on grounds that election officials cannot verify the registrations.
The issue took the national stage in October when Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, accused the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now of producing duplicate and fraudulent registrations in its registration campaign among low-income groups. ACORN, which endorsed Obama and claims to have registered 450,000 Americans this year, denied any foul play. Federal investigators are looking into the matter.
The advocacy campaigns have not come close to registering all of American’s homeless, but their efforts continue.
And many newly registered voters are excited.
“Homeless people need to cast their vote,” Soto said. “If they don’t, then their voice isn’t going to be heard.”