Activists push to get out homeless vote

Decrying new rules, they have set a goal of registering 25,000 people

August 19, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Donna May Bradley registered 13 homeless people to vote yesterday. And although that number may not sound like much, Bradley is helping to build a voting bloc of homeless men and women from Maryland to Hawaii that could number more than 25,000 before the November election.

Worried that recent changes in federal voting regulations could shut out the homeless -- and fed up with President Bush's administration, which some say has turned its back on the poor -- advocates for the homeless have stepped up voter registration efforts, launching rallies such as the one at Baltimore's Health Care for the Homeless in cities across the nation.

"Things have gotten so bad for homeless people that it has motivated them to vote like no other election that I have experienced," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It hasn't been this bad for the homeless since the 1980s. There has been an explosion of homelessness. The numbers currently outnumber the resources available."

There are more than 3 million homeless in the nation, and last year the need for shelter rose 13 percent, according to a survey released in December by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In the busy waiting room of Health Care for the Homeless yesterday, Bradley and her registration partner, Donnell Waters, helped homeless people and those in transition to permanent housing fill out voter registration forms and told them what to put down for home and mailing addresses.

Maryland, like many states, allows homeless people to use a car or park as their home address and a shelter or soup kitchen as their mailing address. There are an estimated 40,000 homeless people in the state.

"I don't have a residence; I am homeless," said Scott Madore, a Baltimore man who has stayed with friends since he lost his home.

In a pinch -- Madore, 36, said he didn't want to use his friend's address because he would move soon -- Bradley told him to use Health Care for the Homeless' address at 111 Park Ave.

"That's fine; I just want to get Bush out of office," said Madore, who is a registered Republican. "I bet there aren't many homeless Republicans."

The Baltimore registration effort, while not affiliated with political parties, mirrors a national trend.

Last month, two men living in a homeless shelter in Boston launched a multistate registration event called "You Don't Need a Home to Vote." Co-sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless and National Low Income Housing Coalition, the event registered more than 1,100 people in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Whitehead said the national voter registration drive is about three-fourths complete. A weeklong registration event is planned for Sept. 26 to Oct. 2. "I think we may exceed the 25,000 number," he said. "It ... is really important that people of all situations get out and vote."

An obstacle for the homeless, however, could be the recently enacted Help America Vote Act of 2004, legislation designed to ensure accurate voting and prevent fraud after problems surfaced in Florida in 2000. Tighter rules for voter identification could impede the homeless.

But in Maryland, where new requirements for voter identification won't go into effect until 2006, state election officials have said they will accept alternate identification cards, including bus system ID cards, to register.

"We want to make voter registration as easy as possible," said Nikki Trella, election reform director for the Maryland Board of Elections. "We will work with anybody to try to improve that, if there is an area that someone feels is lacking."

Some states do more to accommodate homeless voters than others. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, residents can register to vote on the same day as an election, a rule that helps homeless people who might not be able to preregister due to frequent changes of address. In Hawaii, political candidates have been known to visit beaches and parks to register homeless residents.

"Compared to other states, Maryland has not necessarily gone out of its way to clearly lay out the voting rights of homeless people," said Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights staff attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Ozdeger said that unlike some other states, Maryland code does not specifically address homeless voters, a situation that can lead to fuzzy interpretations by election board employees.

Said Ozdeger: "A clearly stated right within the law would allow election officials and poll workers to know exactly what the law is."

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