WA: No Home, No Voice?

By: Anna Ellermeier

Homeless Seattleites face barriers to voting while the City Council decides the fate of tent cities and encampments

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Homeless individuals, in Seattle and across the county, face unique barriers to registering to vote and exercising their right to vote once registered. While a residential address is not required by the Washington State Constitution or by state statute, homeless Seattleites still face significant  challenges in this area.

The Revised Code of Washington has a specific provision addressing the issue of voter registration for people without a residential address. RCW 29A.08.112—Voters Without Traditional Residential Addresses—provides that “[n]o person registering to vote, who meets all the qualifications of a registered voter in the state of Washington, shall be disqualified because he or she lacks a traditional residential address.”

The code section goes on to instruct homeless voters to list as their residential address the “shelter, park, motor home, marina, or other identifiable location that the voter deems to be his or her residence.” The voter will then “be registered and assigned to a precinct based on the location provided.”

Once over the hurdle of registration, homeless individuals face another challenge: getting their ballots. Washington’s elections are entirely mail-in, meaning, voters receive their ballot in the mail and return it either by mail or by dropping it off at a ballot drop box. For individuals without a home and an accompanying mail box, getting a ballot is a challenge in itself.

One option for registered voters in this position is to designate their mailing address as “General Delivery.” This will send their ballot to Seattle’s main post office, where it will be held for 30 days. However, transportation, mobility, and time constraints may make this option unrealistic for many homeless voters.

Another option is to list the address of the shelter where the homeless individual resides. However, distribution of mail is not always reliable at underfunded shelters functioning at or above capacity.

A number of organizations are working to increase voter registration among Seattle’s homeless population. Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness is working actively to register homeless individuals, including providing resources such as this helpful pamphlet, which guides homeless people through the voter registration process. Seattle’s homeless newspaper, Real Change, has also written about the issue, working to dispel the myth that a residential address is required to vote. At a national level, the National Coalition for Homelessness launched a campaign during the 2016 election cycle to increase registration among homeless individuals called “You don’t need a home to vote.”

The issue of voter registration among Seattle’s homeless population is particular consequential as the issue of homelessness has become a central issue in city politics during recent months. The Seattle City Council is set to vote this month on a proposition requiring that the city to notify residents of homeless camps 30 days before any sweeps or clearings of the encampments. This proposition comes just months after the city made a major move in clearing “Jungle,” an expansive and notorious homeless camp situated below I-5—one of the major freeways that runs through the center of Seattle—and the surrounding forests that stretch between downtown Seattle and the neighborhood of Beacon Hill.

As politicians and city government officials make decisions that will have large impacts on Seattle’s homeless population, it is unclear if members of the homeless community will be able to have an effective voice in the process due to the challenges they face in registering to vote.

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