When a citizen votes, much of the voting process depends on the home address. For example, voter cards are mailed to home addresses, and phone calls encouraging people to vote are made to the phone number associated with their addresses. Candidates also knock on people’s doors at times, and polling stations are assigned based on locations. What does this emphasis on a fixed place in our electoral system mean for citizens that may lack a permanent address at the time of an election?
Experiencing homelessness does not strip Canadians of their citizenship. Canadians experiencing homelessness, therefore, must have equal access to practicing their right to vote. On the other hand, citizens experiencing homelessness are not often considered when discussing voting and elections. While there are processes in place that ensure individuals experiencing homeless can vote, they are complex and include additional actors as well as greater individual effort. They also remain relatively unknown to those affected.
The research I conducted for my master’s thesis examined the barriers that individuals experiencing homelessness in Toronto face while voting. I spent eight weeks in the field, in the city of Toronto, conducting 45 interviews with service providers, individuals experiencing homelessness, politicians, and election agency representatives.
There are processes in place to allow citizens without a permanent address to vote. On the other hand, they are often too complex. There are also differences depending on the level of election, particularly around the need for identification. When it comes to the need for identification, the federal process is the most rigid; provincially, there have been amendments to the process that do not require identification; municipally, there are various ways that citizens without a permanent address can vote, with or without identification. What all three processes have in common is the involvement of service providers from institutions for individuals experiencing homelessness. Service providers often need to ensure that their institution is authorized by the election agency, and then are provided documentation that they can distribute to clients. Such documentation can act as proof of residence at all levels of elections, and in Ontario, even as identification.
What my research found is that there is a disconnect between the actors involved in the process of voting for citizens lacking addresses. Service providers rarely cited election agencies or the government as sources of information regarding voting or elections. The process involves service providers playing the role of mediators, but this begs the question of whether or not service providers are aware of the role they have been assigned. Service providers that I interviewed expressed a desire to encourage their clients to vote. They did, however, identify a lack of resources to do so. No additional resources are provided to assist in the dissemination of information and adding voting to institutional mandates. Furthermore, although information is sent from election agencies to institutions serving individuals experiencing homelessness, not all service providers recall receiving such information—which often included documentation needed to vote. If information regarding the process and the necessary documentation are not provided to citizens experiencing homelessness, how are they to know how to vote, let alone actually do so?
Knowledge on the Process
Over half of the participants experiencing homelessness were not aware that they could vote without a permanent address. This speaks to the common stereotypes—are citizens that experience homelessness not voting because they don’t want to, or because they are not aware of their right to do so?
Although there are stereotypes that assume citizens experiencing homelessness do not want to participate in elections, or that they are politically uninformed, my research found that this is not the case. Almost all of the participants experiencing homelessness were politically aware, eager to discuss politics and recent elections or campaign promises. Although participants were also disengaged from politics, and argued for politicians to pay closer attention to poverty in the city, they were still politically informed.
Almost three quarters of participants had voted in the past, although only a quarter did so using the process for those without a permanent address. Of the participants that did not vote, 80% were unaware of the processes. This speaks to the possibility that the lack of information regarding the process may impact the likelihood of voting. Many participants were particularly surprised that they could vote without identification at the provincial level. Others stated that they wished they knew about the processes, and that regardless of the complexities, they would have voted if they had known.
Two participants cited the lack of knowledge of polling staff. One participant in particular was asked to wait and pulled aside until someone who knew the process could be called. Having more actors, particularly those that are necessary to the process, knowledgeable and trained on the processes was often emphasized as necessary. Other vital actors in ensuring the information gets passed down to citizens experiencing homelessness were politicians. The politicians I interviewed were aware of processes existing, but were not always sure of the details of the voting processes. Furthermore, not many included citizens experiencing homelessness in their campaign efforts; as one politician argued, it is often assumed that citizens experiencing homelessness do not vote, so efforts are focused on populations and areas where there are citizens that do vote, presumably.
What needs to be done?
My participants were eager to offer steps to move forward. These included:
- More information, not just for individuals experiencing homelessness, but also the pertinent actors (service providers)
- More training, particularly for polling clerks and election staff on the process
- Making the processes easier by harmonizing process across the different levels of government, which was often cited by service providers
- Coordination between election agencies, politicians and service providers
- Ensuring politicians are part of the solution, and have them reconsider their assumptions on which citizens are voters
The political citizenship of citizens experiencing homelessness needs to be considered but currently, there is a lack of data surrounding homelessness and voting, as well as a lack of research regarding the political citizenship of a vital group of Canadians. I am very interested in expanding this research to determine all of the actors involved in ensuring that citizens experiencing homelessness are aware of, and able to express, their political right to vote. What are the actors involved and what are their responsibilities, if any? Are they aware of their responsibilities? How do they interact with one another and citizens experiencing homelessness?
Furthermore, the processes in place often assume that citizens experiencing homelessness are accessing services. With many of the processes requiring service providers, and many individuals being unaware of the process, what does this mean for individuals not accessing services?
Ensuring that citizens experiencing homelessness are able to politically participate in our society and have a voice in the democratic process is vital, and an important step forward to policies aimed at reducing rates of homelessness.
Neglected Citizenry: Homelessness and Voting in Toronto is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see conference.caeh.ca.