This week, we will read Parashat Noach, which tells the story of Noah and the flood. In this parashah (Torah portion), as the flood came upon the Earth over the course of seven days, Noah and his family took shelter in the ark, along with all the animals that “went two and two … into the ark, male and female, as God commanded Noah” (Genesis 7:8). Though the rain continues for forty days and forty nights, “Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark,” and they were safe (Genesis 7:23). Every animal was represented, and everyone was provided the shelter that would provide them with safety.
As Election Day approaches, we are reminded of the importance of making ourselves heard in our democratic process. It is crucial that as many people who can vote have the ability to get to the polls. For those who are homeless, however, registering to vote and getting to the polls can be especially challenging.
To register to vote, you must be a United States citizen, be a resident in the state where you are registering to vote, be at least 18 years old, not be a convicted felon. Nowhere on this list of criteria is having a permanent home a necessary requirement to going to the ballot box and voting.
For homeless people in a shelter, they can use the address of the shelter or where they receive mail to register to vote, and they will vote in the precinct closest to where they will receive mail. Not every state even required a mailing address to register to vote.
Courts have also addressed this issue: in 1992’s Coalition for the Homeless v. Jensen, the New York Appellate Court ruled that a requirement that people live in a traditional dwelling in order to vote put an unconstitutional constraint on the voting rights of homeless persons. When this case was heard, over one hundred residents appeared in court and were accepted as voters.
Every year, low income and homeless people vote at a lower rate than individuals with higher income individuals, even though many of the policies that they will be voting on will greatly impact them. Though having a home is not mandatory for voting, homeless individuals have long faced obstacles in registering to vote. This in part because of the voter ID laws that have made it so difficult for many Americans to get to the polls to vote, especially for those without permanent housing. Additionally, it is more challenging for individuals experiencing homelessness to learn about the candidates or to figure out where they should go to vote, because it is often harder for them to access this information.
There are many efforts underway to ensure that as many individuals – even those who do not have homes – can get to the polls. Organizations such as the National Coalition for the Homeless have been supporting voter registration efforts and are also promoting candidate’s forums on issues relevant to the homeless population. These organizations also work to provide transportation for those to go from the shelter to the polls, and volunteers drop off registration cards at the shelters and then ensure that the completed registration cards get to the proper jurisdiction office.
Despite the success of these efforts, significant challenges remain: many of the shelters are understaffed, interfering with their ability to register as many people as possible. Further, limited hours at Boards of Elections make it harder for people to vote early, which makes it harder for shelters to get individuals to the polls in an easy and efficient manner.
If your state’s voter registration deadline has not passed, make sure that you register to vote today! This Election Day, think about how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to weigh in on critical issues in our society. Every voice should count in this process, and we need to encourage as many people as possible to get to the polls and vote.