How do election laws affect the homeless?

  • Voting in Peterborough for the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/27/2021 8:18:29 PM

When Xiante Dahabi lived out of her car in Concord, voting in elections was the last thing on her mind. To start, she didn’t know where to go or how to register. But most importantly, she was more focused on survival and safety, as a homeless person at the time, than legislative affairs.

Years later she is housed, an advocate for the homeless and in school to become a therapist. Now, reflecting on the decade of her life living out of her car, in the woods and ultimately in a shelter and then transitional housing, she explained that the homeless community is not only misunderstood but left out of the conversation about voting rights.

“By that point, one is often so disempowered that they do not think beyond survival,” she said. “Disabling them from voting, from using their sacred voice and their right to use that vote is one of the many, many ways that people who are homeless are silenced.”

State election officials have tried to make voting as easy and accessible as possible for homeless individuals who still must prove their identity, age, citizenship and domicile in order to register. 

“Both the New Hampshire and United States Constitutions establish that a homeless person has the same right to vote as a person who owns, leases, or rents a home,” the state’s election procedure manual states. 

Knowing that traditional paperwork used to register to vote, like a driver’s license or even a utility bill to prove someone's domicile is out of the picture for most people experiencing homelessness, election clerks may register voters whom they know are homeless or have those individuals sign an affidavit without identification or other paperwork.

With increased paranoia about voter fraud and election theft, however, the domicile component of voting has been a flashpoint in the New Hampshire legal system.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down a law that would have required proof of residency for voters. Plaintiffs in the case included college students who feared a residency requirement that would have barred them from voting in the state, centering the conversation around New Hampshire’s college population.

But this requirement would have impacted the homeless’s ability to vote as well.

“Laws that separate them from that right even more will take a population that is already disenfranchised and set them apart,” said Dahabi.

Not having a physical address, for identification or mailing purposes, was one of the hardest challenges for Crystal Caron while she was homeless on and off for two years.

Both Dahabi and Caron found their voice through the Granite Leaders Program within the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness. The program allowed them to completed a six-month leadership program to learn about advocating with policymakers, public speaking and grassroots organizations.

For Caron, who is a single mother of three, Granite Leaders allowed her to share her story of homelessness on their promotional pamphlets and in front of crowds. She would say she defied the stereotype of homelessness – one that includes drugs or addictions – and instead found herself on the street with her children after an abusive relationship.

While Caron has helped humanize the homeless community with her story, Dahabi has dreamed of ways for change, which starts with policymakers better understanding the homeless population.

The language of laws themselves exclude the homeless population, she believes, but most voters would not consider this when casting a vote in the ballot box. This is why the homeless community needs representation, or a better understanding from lawmakers. She envisions a program for policymakers to camp out with homeless people for a night to better understand their living conditions.

“I would invite Governor Sununu to follow a homeless person, to sit with one and spend a night or three out there,” she said. “Then I think we would see the laws change.”

Once people are able to learn more about the homeless population she hopes the language of laws would be more inclusive.

“Voting itself is key if laws can be worded in such a way as to give homeless people their own way of being, their own rights,” she said. “We need to be mindful of the wording of laws to include homeless people.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect that homeless individuals without documentation can register to vote by signing an affidavit asserting their domicile. 

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