Oregon is touted far and wide as the easiest place in America to vote. When asked, “What would a system that wanted people to vote look like?” Stacey Abrams replied, “Oregon.” Voting in Oregon is easy, transparent, and even safe during a pandemic. Right?
Oregon residents who are United States citizens can register to vote at 16 to get their first ballot at 18; can get registered through an automatic process after a visit to the DMV; and then for each and every election are mailed a ballot to their home. But what if you are experiencing homelessness or housing instability? If you do not have a stable home address and have to pick up and move more often, you are dramatically less likely to receive a ballot, and then subsequently vote in each election.
Our state remains a shining example to the rest of the country that, in the words of President Biden, “The right to vote freely. The right to vote fairly. The right to have your vote counted” is possible and has been a reality for Oregonians for more than two decades. Despite the fact that the ease of voting is an assumption for most Oregonians, “Vote-at-home” is not so easy for underrepresented communities that struggle with economic inequality, housing instability, and homelessness.
It is more expensive to be poor and it is also harder to vote. The average American moves once every five years. But economic inequality forces families to move more often. Looking at census data, geographic mobility is in direct correlation to poverty: the higher the percentage of persons that have moved in the last year, the higher the percentage of persons below the poverty line in a given community.
Low-income families, “are forced by urgent crises to choose the safest, most convenient locations necessary for immediate survival rather than take the time to find neighborhoods with great schools and job opportunities. These recurrent, unpredictable shocks often include housing quality failure, housing policy changes, landlord behaviors, income changes, and neighborhood violence,” according to recent research by S. DeLuca at Johns Hopkins University. The more often you move the harder it is to ensure that your ballot will find you, and the harder it becomes to choose leaders and make decisions on your ballot that will foster good schools and enable opportunities for success in your community.
Housing instability and homelessness add a daily insidious layer of obstacles to overcome, obstacles to nutrition, hygiene, safety, and also obstacles to voting. Yes, you do have the right to vote if you are experiencing homelessness, but it is so much more difficult to exercise that right. The emerging eviction crisis and continuing affordable housing emergency in Oregon only amplify the obstacles to voting for the most vulnerable communities.
We can begin to address these obstacles to voter registration with tangible actions:
- Create more opportunities for automatic voter registration in addition to the DMV such as hunting licences, social services, and community college admissions.
- Create a program that encourages property managers to include a voter registration opportunity as part of the lease signing process.
- Support social and nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to families in poverty and people experiencing homelessness in voter registration and ballot access.
- Support culturally responsive organizations that can connect communities to voter registration and participation in immediately tangible ways.
- Embrace the improvements to voter access that HB 3291 (Election Day postmarked ballots) will bring to Oregon and on the National level pass H.R. 1 The For the People Act so that the rest of the country can begin to vote like Oregon does.
Improving voter registration accessibility, accuracy, and accountability will encourage voter participation across diverse communities, leading to increased opportunities for individual and community success, and in turn more responsive public decision-making.