The Homeless Vote: Can You Legally Cast a Ballot?

Homeless citizens can register and vote in all 50 states. But, the number of homeless people who vote is extremely low. This is likely because voting procedures are long and exhausting, especially for the unhoused.

Although none of the 50 states require a physical address to vote, homeless individuals face many obstacles in the voting process.

Can Unhoused People Vote?

Historically, states required voters to show proof of physical residence before registering to vote. Courts have struck down these laws. Today, states can only require that citizens include the place they consider their residence on their voter registration form. This can be where they sleep at night, be it a homeless shelter or other location. In many states, this can even be a bench in the park.

Giving a place of residence ensures people vote in the correct district. It also allows election officials to assign the voter a polling place for in-person voting. Things become tricky if an unhoused person wishes to cast a mail-in or absentee ballot.

The State May Need a Mailing Address

People experiencing homelessness face many systemic and practical challenges when trying to cast their ballot. One of these challenges is a lack of mailing addresses. Most states require voters to provide a mailing address where election officials can send voter ID cards and other election-related materials.

The good news is that the mailing address doesn't have to be the voter's home address. It can be any place willing to accept mail on the voter's behalf, such as an advocacy organization or nonprofit agency.

Most States Have Voter ID Laws

Most states need voters to show identification before they can register to vote. This can be a state ID, a driver's license, a Social Security card, or a birth certificate. Some states, like Virginia and Georgia, require voters to provide a picture ID. Other states, such as Alaska, accept non-photo IDs. First-time registered voters usually have to show more documentation to prove their eligibility.

What Happens If You Don't Have an ID?

The administrative procedures for getting a state ID or driver's license can be harrowing for the unhoused.

States may offer alternatives that allow people to vote without formal identification. These alternatives vary depending on how strict a state's voter ID laws are.

Strict Voter ID Law States

States with "strict" voter ID laws require voters to cast provisional ballots and take extra steps to ensure the state counts their votes. The specific steps the voter must take vary by election.

Non-Strict Voter ID Law States

Voters in states without strict voter ID laws don't need to take further action after election day to ensure the state counts their votes. States that follow this approach have voters sign an affidavit or vote on a provisional ballot and confirm their eligibility later.

The following table shows states' voter ID laws.

Strict voter ID states

  • Arkansas
  • Idaho
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Wyoming

Non-strict voter ID states

  • Arizona
  • Alaska
  • Georgia *
  • Alabama*
  • Indiana *
  • Kansas *
  • Colorado
  • Mississippi *
  • Connecticut
  • North Dakota
  • Delaware
  • Florida*
  • Wisconsin*
  • Hawaii*
  • Virginia *
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana*
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan*
  • North Carolina
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island*
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota*
  • Texas*
  • Tennessee*
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

*States that require a photo ID.

Note: State laws are subject to change through new legislation, higher court rulings, ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to give the most recent information, consult an attorney or conduct legal research to verify your state's laws.

Are There Any Exceptions to the Voter ID Rule?

Although most states have a firm voter ID law, some offer exceptions to make voting easier for people experiencing homelessness. Indiana and Tennessee, for instance, have exemptions for people who are indigent or have religious objections to getting photographed.

Other Voting Barriers Unhoused Citizens Face

Other barriers unhoused voters face include transportation problems and difficulty accessing resources to learn about voting. Many agencies engage in outreach programs to help ease these barriers to voting. For example, some groups have volunteers posted at street corners, offering to help people register to vote or get to the polling place.

Unfortunately, they aren't always successful, especially in local elections. Many homeless people work harder to overcome these barriers for the general election or presidential election.

Transportation Problems

Identifying the polling place and getting there are also barriers homeless people face when they try to vote. This is especially true if the polling locations are far from where homeless people live, or public transportation is not near the voting stations.

Many nationwide voter-rights organizations provide transportation to polling places for people experiencing homelessness and anyone else who needs it. But, it is challenging for those in need to locate such services.

Awareness of Voting Procedures

Homeless people may not have the resources to learn the election procedures in their states, so they miss out on the opportunity. Other problems include knowing where to get the proper voter registration documents or being unaware of registration deadlines. Some homeless people aren't even aware of the candidates running for office.

Do You Still Have Questions?

The Homeless Voting Rights manual, which the National Coalition for the Homeless prepared, is a good resource for learning more about voting rights for people experiencing homelessness.

An Attorney Can Help if Someone Violated Your Voting Rights

The right to vote is the cornerstone of the American democracy. If you believe someone has violated your right to vote or worry about your ability to cast your ballot, speak with a civil rights attorney to get help.

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