Not long after I came to the US my friend Sarah convinced me to go on a road trip with her to register voters ahead of the 2008 election that brought Obama to power. This is a piece I wrote at the time. I don’t know whether the situation has changed much in the last four years concerning the disenfranchisement of homeless voters. I’d be interested to know if anyone has more information.
I have just returned from 10 days spent registering voters in Nevada and Colorado, two states that could go either way in the upcoming election.
In some ways the trip was not unusual. Right now large numbers of politically-motivated activists, Democrat and Republican, are migrating to swing states across the US, knocking on doors, standing outside strip malls, trying to secure crucial votes that could prove the difference in an election that once again looks like it’s going to the wire.
Though we were certainly part of this general trend, myself and my friend Sarah (who accompanied me) stood at a distance from party politics.
There was no proselytising for one thing: We weren’t interested in telling voters who to vote for, only to vote. Our road trip also concentrated exclusively on a single demographic; the hundreds of thousands who sleep rough in America every night. Outside homeless shelters in Las Vegas and Christian missions in downtown Denver we tried to enfranchise the poor and destitute, tempting them with bags full of cheeseburgers and cups of cigarettes. Kneeling on the sidewalk of a dimly-lit street to help a Vietnam War vet with a head full of liquor write out his social security number; listening to their hard luck tales and the incoherent ramblings of crack addicts.
It was an experience and an education. One of the most glaring insights was the extent to which the homeless in the U.S. have been abandoned by the political process.
Democrats are traditionally seen as the party of the poor and dispossessed and it was clear from talking to the homeless on the streets of Nevada and Colorado that majority planned to vote Obama.
It is a fact both parties tacitly acknowledged last week in Ohio when they clashed over a six-day window in which voters can register and vote in the state on the same day. The measure would clearly benefit the homeless, whose chaotic lifestyles can make the simple act of getting to the polls on election day a near impossibility.
Ohio Democrats support the move; Republicans do not and have challenged the voting window in court.
In spite of the obvious advantage they hold, there was little evidence that Democrats in Nevada and Colorado were reaching out to this small but potentially significant pool of voters. At the Obama campaign office in Las Vegas our plan to target rough sleepers was met with incredulity. They could offer no advice on where we might find homeless voters, and seemingly had no plans to reach out to them themselves.
In Denver they were more encouraging, though equally bemused by the tactic.
Maybe this is not so surprising. There’s no doubt some of those pledging support for the Chicago senator on the streets of both states would raise more than a few eyebrows in polite Democrat society.
Our first sign-up was Mark, a 48-year-old ex-con we met outside a 99-cents Taco restaurant in down town Vegas.
Mark had half his teeth missing and a deep tan from riding out in the sun all day on a beat-up mountain bike. He had spent nearly half his life in prison, and whilst inside became a member of the notorious white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood. Nonetheless he said he was planning to vote Democrat, “for the black man.”
Perhaps the failure to engage with the homeless can also in part be explained by state laws on voting rights that have for a long time excluded many of those who find themselves on the street.
A large proportion of America’s estimated 750,000 homeless have criminal records, and until recently many states prohibited former convicts from voting. Civil rights groups claim the restrictions were rooted in racism since the number of states passing laws stripping convicted criminals of the vote doubled in the years after suffrage was extended to blacks and, then as now, a disproportionately high volume of African-Americans went through the prison system.
In the last few years legal challenges have returned voting rights to ex-cons. With a handful of exceptions most states, including Nevada and Colorado, now allow former felons to vote. (Although most states still don’t extend that right to those currently serving time).
It appears, however, that no-one has bothered to tell the people concerned. The most consistent response we heard on the street was: “I ain’t allowed to vote. I’m a felon.”
For those at the margins of American society, rehabilitation is a long, often lonely road.