By: Avery Dobbs
The state of Hawaii has had the lowest voter turnout rate in the country in the past five presidential election cycles. While the reasons for low turnout rates are nuanced and multifactor, it is safe to say that at least part of the problem is inaccessibility of the polls for Hawaii’s many homeless residents. Hawaii currently has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in America with over seven thousand homeless residents in the state. Homeless residents are extremely vulnerable to public regulations but often have a limited say in decision making due to impediments to voting while homeless. While the only legal requirements for voting in Hawaii are 1) being properly registered to vote, 2) being a U.S. citizen and resident of Hawaii, and 3) being over the age of 18, the issue for homeless voters is how to register to vote without having an address or a photo ID.
Although Hawaii allows residents to register to vote without a having a permanent address, registration does require a general description of where residents live and a mailing address where they can receive precinct cards. This registration process becomes complicated when you take into account efforts by local officials to displace the homeless from popular spots across the state. A 2014 law made it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks in Waikiki and other popular areas for the homeless in Hawaii. This law has virtually eliminated homeless presence in what were formerly the highest trafficked areas and has lead to thousands of warnings and hundreds of arrests of homeless residents. Honolulu’s aggressive enforcement of this sit-lie ban has caused the homeless population to constantly shift between neighborhoods in a state of permanent displacement.
Fortunately, registration is becoming easier. Hawaii has recently taken action to make registration more accessible for all residents by allowing same day registration at the polls. The implementation of this was limited to early voting days as of the 2016 elections but will be expanded to Election Day voting as of 2018. Voters will also be able to submit a change of address form at a new polling station and vote there same day in 2018. This will hopefully increase access to the polls for unsettled homeless populations by allowing registration without a mailing address.
However, even with same day registration, homeless residents may be left out due to not having proof of identity. First time voters are required to show proof of identity in Hawaii through either through a state issued photo ID or a “utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows your name and address”. This may prevent a large portion of homeless residents from voting.
People living on the streets frequently have their property, including documents like ID’s, lost, stolen, or seized when government agencies come through to do sweeps. Enforcement of the 2014 sit-lie ban has added an increased probability that property left out in public including homeless camp sites will be thrown away or confiscated by law enforcement as they seek to remove the homeless from public spots. Without IDs it can be extremely difficult for the homeless to secure government benefits or even get into shelters, which often require IDs to perform background checks before letting in residents.
Once lost, it can be extremely difficult for the homeless to recover their documents, without which they cannot vote. Without another government issued document or things like an address or utility bill to prove identity it becomes an extensive process for people to obtain new government IDs. Nonprofits like the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii work with the homeless to help them obtain IDs but even with legal assistance the process takes an average of six months.
Politicians in Hawaii have recently taken steps to address this problem by introducing legislation in January 2017 to assist homeless people to recover government issued identification documents. This bill would create the Executive Office of Homeless Assistance specifically to help homeless residents recover property taken from them in government sweeps and to recover identification documents. The bill has yet to pass, but would be a great step forward in helping vulnerable homeless residents access their right to vote.