Consistent Lack of Access to the Polls: The Plight of the Homeless American Citizen 

September 21, 2020 by Aburiyeba Amaso

by Greg Herrigel

“The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.”


Voting is one of our most essential rights as American citizens. Notice that I have characterized it as a right, rather than as a privilege, or as a benefit of citizenship, or whatever other term may have been applied to it over the years. While the Constitution does not explicitly characterize it as right, I believe that voting is – and always was – meant to be a right. Presidents from both political parties have acknowledged that voting is a right: Lyndon B. Johnson stated before a joint session of Congress in 1965 that “[i]t is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote”[1]; President George W. Bush echoed the same sentiment in a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2006: “President Johnson called the right to vote the lifeblood of our democracy. That was true then and it remains true today.”[2]  The Supreme Court recognizes that voting is a right, for example in Reynolds v. Sims in 1964: “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.”[3] In the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, Congress finds that, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right.”[4] Moreover, the Constitution arguably protects the ability to vote more than any other right to which we proclaim to be entitled.[5]

One would therefore assume that if you meet all requisite voting requirements – you are a United States Citizen, at least eighteen years old, have registered to vote before your state’s registration deadline, and meet your state’s residency requirements[6] – then you should have no trouble casting your vote at the polls. And yet, this nation faces a huge problem of homeless citizens being unable to have their voices heard in the way to which they are entitled.

Government and other officials proclaim that state residency requirements do not impede homeless Americans from voting. The website specifically asserts that “[y]ou can be homeless and still meet these requirements,”[7] linking to recommendations on using a shelter address, a park, or even a street corner as a voting address, for which “[t]he federal voter registration form and many state forms provide a space for this purpose.”[8] A 2016 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless indicates that “no state requires residents to have a traditional residence in order to vote in elections,” and lists every state as allowing both sheltered and unsheltered residents to register to vote (except for North Dakota, which was listed as N/A).[9]  While all of these organizations are correct, it is usually not the state residency requirements that pose an obstacle to homeless women and men. Rather, their lack of access to a physical mailing address or required forms of identification prevents them from voting.  The result: homeless individuals are all too frequently turned away at the polls.

Markita Kornegay, for example, remembers the hassle she faced when trying to vote in the District of Columbia during the 2016 election. She did not “have any form of identification or official mail, not even a utility bill, that lists her current address as the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE—one of a dozen or so motels that the city leases as shelter space for families experiencing homelessness.” She had only her driver’s license which still listed her former residence, where she also continued to receive mail.[10] A poll worker informed her that despite being a D.C. resident, she was not in the correct region and had to travel to Mount Rainier, Maryland to vote. The poll worker explained that there was nothing more Kornegay could do to vote in D.C. Kornegay stated, “I feel irritated, because I came all the way here for nothing.”[11] She is not the only person experiencing homelessness with such a story. Some have been pushed out of homeless camps or entire areas of town frequently enough that they cannot list any particular stable address at which they can receive mail. People who move locations frequently cannot vote in states that require a physical mailing address and will not even accept P.O. boxes.[12] Many homeless individuals have never had a driver’s license and have neither the time nor the money to get one now.[13] Just as frequently, they have either lost or misplaced other identifying documents, such as their social security card or birth certificate, perhaps in a city-enforced sweep of the camp at which they were staying. As one advocate explained, “[i]f you’re not present [during a sweep], they’ll throw away your stuff . . . And it can take a year to get it back.”[14]  Those living in states with strict voter identification laws will find themselves without any recourse if no changes are made.[15]

However, change is not impossible and is actually happening in our time. Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia signed bills into law on Saturday, April 11, preventing the State from requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls before casting their ballot. In his public statement, Governor Northam declared that “[n]o matter who you are or where you live in Virginia, your voice deserves to be heard.”[16] This bill presents a remarkable step in the right direction for the State of Virginia, because prior to its signing, Virginia had one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country. A study by Northern Illinois University in 2018, for example, ranked the State as the second most inhibitive to voting, “only beating Mississippi.”[17] More states need to follow the example of Virginia and eliminate photo ID requirements, particularly as another election approaches in the not-so-distant future.

Being denied the vote impacts homeless people in so many ways. Not only is it an affront to their dignity, but it also takes away their ability to support elected officials whose decisions and policies could benefit them. Policy decisions especially affect homeless people because “[e]verything from new zoning laws to criminalizing loitering can affect where homeless people live and sleep.”[18]  Voter suppression also prevents them from impacting ballot initiatives on issues that are important to them and “directly affect the nation’s most vulnerable populations.”[19] Their voices should be heard, and they should be treated with the respect they deserve. They are entitled to as much by their status as American citizens, just like you and I.


[1] Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States, Special Message to the Congress, (Mar. 15, 1965),

[2] Bush Hails Civil Rights Movement, CBS News, Jul. 20, 2006,

[3] Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 555 (1964).

[4] National Voter Registration Act of 1993, 52 U.S.C. § 20501 (1993).

[5] See Garrett Epps, Voting: Right or Privilege?, The Atlantic, Sept. 18, 2012, (“Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment imposes a penalty upon states that deny or abridge ‘the right to vote at any [federal or state] election … to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, … except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.’ The Fifteenth states that ‘[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote’ can’t be abridged by race; the Nineteenth says that the same right can’t be abridged by sex; the Twenty-Fourth says that ‘the right of citizens of the United States to vote’ in federal elections can’t be blocked by a poll tax; and the Twenty-Sixth protects ‘[t]he right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote.’”)

[6] See Who Can and Can’t Vote in U.S. Elections,,

[7] See id.

[8] Voting and Homelessness, Nonprofit VOTE,

[9] “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote”: Voting Rights: Registration Manual, National Coalition for the Homeless, Mar. 2016,

[10] Kriston Capps, Voting While Homeless, CityLab, Nov. 8, 2016,

[11] Id.

[12] See Dave Roos, Homeless Americans Can Vote, But It Isn’t Easy, HowStuffWorks, Aug. 8, 2018,

[13] See Voting While Homeless, Art From the Streets, Oct. 22, 2019,

[14] Nathalie Baptiste & Will Peischel, Voting Can Be Hard. If You’re Homeless, It’s Nearly Impossible., Mother Jones, Nov. 9, 2019,

[15] See Wendy Underhill, Voter Identification Requirements, National Conference of State Legislatures, Feb. 2, 2020,

[16] See Rebecca Klar, Virginia governor signs legislation dropping voting restrictions, The Hill, Apr. 13, 2020,

[17] Nathalie Baptiste & Will Peischel, Voting Can Be Hard. If You’re Homeless, It’s Nearly Impossible., Mother Jones, Nov. 9, 2019,

[18] Id.

[19] Kriston Capps, Voting While Homeless, CityLab, Nov. 8, 2016,