What are the barriers to voting that the homeless population face?

Homeless Hub
April 07, 2017
Tags: elections
Categories: Ask the Hub

We have an insightful thread on the Community Workspace on Homelessness on voting participation among people experiencing homelessness. The Community Workspace is an interactive space for communities and by communities. It is an opportunity for leaders, service providers and policymakers to share information, seek input and guidance from others, as well as have discussions around homelessness.

We asked you to share your thoughts on the consequences of low voting turn out among the homeless population, their barriers to voting, programs available to facilitate their vote and what stakeholders can do in order to promote voting while eliminating some of the challenges. In this blog entry, I’ll go over what was shared on the Community Workspace. I also encourage you to check the discussion and contribute your thoughts.

During the 2015 federal elections, we posted a blog entry going over the ways that people experiencing homelessness can vote, and touched on the issues of providing identification and not having a fixed address. We also released the Housing and Homelessness Election Guide 2015 which highlighted some recommendations geared towards the federal government from the State of Homelessness 2014. It also included comparison among the main party platforms with a number of resources in order to support voters make informed decisions on who they vote for.

While toolkits such as the Housing and Homelessness Election Guide 2015 are important resources for voters including people experiencing homelessness, there also needs to be mechanisms in place to facilitate the voting process for the homeless population while also reducing the barriers. Below is what we’ve heard from you.

Ideas & thoughts from the Community Workspace

An issue discussed is the discrimination experienced by the homeless population, leaving many to retract or feel uncomfortable in public spaces. As one of the users put it: “Who wants to go vote when you have your stomach in knots?”

Media Folder: 

Voting locations are just not welcoming to people experiencing homelessness and this is an accessibility barrier. An idea to address this would be to have mobile polling stations traveling between service providers such as drop-in centers and shelters similar to what is currently available for voters living in long-term care facilities and hospitals. Mobile polling stations could visit the same service provider on multiple occasions until no more votes are casted. This would avoid the anxiety that comes from having to disclose their circumstances to polling officers in front of other voters and running the risk of being turned away in front of others. Mobile polling stations would also make it easier for service providers to vouch for anyone that does not have sufficient I.D.

Having a polling on-site made a big difference for the Lookout Society in BC when the organization licensed its shelter as a “care facility”. One of their staff reported on the thread that having a polling station on-site combined with education made voting participation “extremely high”.  In addition, Lookout Society supported their clients with obtaining I.D., staff were available to confirm identification of voters, posted information and engaged candidates by asking them to fill out a questionnaire made available to the residents. 

While working at YWCA Agvvik Nunavut, we facilitated a series on workshops to discuss the territorial election as requested by a resident. We reached out to candidates to drop off materials, talked to the election officers in advance about what could be done for those without I.D. and they assigned us an election officer that would support voters at the polling station and made herself available to answer any questions ahead of election day. Transportation was provided to and from the polling station and a staff was present at the polling station if needed. While this was a successful initiative, on-site polling stations or mobile polling stations are the better ways to go.

This was proven in the 2015 federal elections when The Calgary Homeless Foundation held a mock election at four shelters including The Alex, Alpha House, YWCA Mary Dover House and the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. Roughly 500 people participated in this initiative. People had the opportunity to learn about the voting process as well as share their primary concerns. 60% identified affordable housing as their most important issue. In addition, Elections Canada and the Foundation set up a voter registration booth at the Drop-In & Rehab Centre and a mobile polling station on election day. In the first hour and a half of opening, at least 60 people had casted their ballots. However, two people were turned away due to having insufficient I.D. The requirements of identification continue to be a barrier and mentioned in the Community Workspace thread.

Any support available for voters experiencing homelessness may make the difference on whether they vote or not. One person with lived-experience made this clear on the Community Workspace: “The barriers to voting may seem small but to the one on the street it’s almost insurmountable.” We must not assume that because voter turn out is low that people are not interested. Rather, we must look at the systems in place that deter people from casting a ballot and what could be done to facilitate the process.

Below are some questions to consider:

  1. What are the consequences of low voting participation among people experiencing homelessness?
  2. What are the barriers to voting that people without housing face?
  3. How can policy-makers, organizations and advocates reduce those barriers?
  4. Are there programs and initiatives that have had demonstrable success in this area?

We would like to feature your thoughts on this topic. We encourage you to share your feedback with us on FacebookTwitter or the Community Workspace on Homelessness, an online forum to discuss homelessness in Canada. 

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: CBC News Calgary, “Calgary Drop-In Centre tests mobile station for election day” 

Ambar Aleman is a graduate student working at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Previous to her role at COH, Ambar worked on a number of national advocacy campaigns and policy initiatives on violence against women, women's homlessness and youth leadership. She has also worked front-line at a women's homeless shelter serving families.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.