CLEVELAND, OHIO — A red van with peeling paint screeched to a halt outside Cleveland’s West Side Catholic Center, a facility that provides services to people experiencing homelessness. Dozens of people sat on the sidewalk or leaned against a brick wall eating off of paper plates. Ken Payton leaned out the driver’s window and called out to them, “Early voting! If you want to go, I’ll take you down there and bring you back.”
Daniel Cruz, who goes by the nickname Shark, bounced up and down in the van’s middle seat. “C’mon, c’mon, let’s go vote,” he called out. Cruz had boarded the van at St. Malachi’s, home to another of Cleveland’s homeless shelters, and was itching to cast a vote for the second time in his life.
The crowd looked up warily from their plates, and no one stepped forward. Payton, a retired truck driver who now works with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), grew frustrated.
“It took us so long to get to the place where we can vote,” he said of himself and his fellow African Americans, “So you’ve really got to be a part of this. But you hear so much, ‘My vote don’t count’ and ‘I don’t care who they pick’ and all that.”
After putting out a last call to the shelter residents, and promising to return again later in the week, Payton put the van in gear and headed toward the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections — the only early voting site to serve the county’s nearly 900,000 voters.
Jumping through hoops
NEOCH has been working for more than a decade to register homeless voters in Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods and make sure their votes are counted. In addition to the high levels of apathy and distrust in a population struggling with mental illness, stress, and trauma, the group has also faced many legal barriers to election participation. Brian Davis, the NEOCH’s executive director, says his organization has sued the state of Ohio several times over policies that threaten the voting rights of homeless residents.
They unsuccessfully challenged the state’s voter ID law, arguing that it disproportionately punished homeless voters who often lack the documents needed to acquire an ID.
“Getting your birth certificate is not an easy undertaking, especially if you are homeless,” Davis explained. “You can start the process in January and still not get an ID by the time you want to vote in November. And the expense can be a problem. We pay the fees and help people negotiate these bureaucracies to get IDs, but it’s a barrier to people participating.”
NEOCH also took a stand against the elimination of “Golden Week” — the week of early voting in October that served as the only period in which voters could register to vote and cast a ballot in a single visit.
“Getting your birth certificate is not an easy undertaking, especially if you are homeless.”
The group’s most recent legal battle concerns provisional ballots, as the state’s homeless population is especially vulnerable to a state law that throws away any ballot with a small error.
“It’s ludicrous that your entire ballot will be thrown away if you sign your name in cursive instead of printing it,” Davis said. “Even if the Board has no problem verifying that you are who you say you are, one speck of human error causes your ballot to be thrown in the trash.”
More than 4,000 ballots in Cuyahoga County alone were thrown out in 2014 for small, technical errors. The county, which is more than 30 percent African-American, enforces the policy much more strictly than the state’s more rural, white, Republican counties. Officials from Meigs County, which is more than 97 percent white, testified that they counted ballots from residents that had incorrect birth dates, and even at those that had no name or address at all.
Cleveland Attorney Subodh Chandra, who represented the homeless voters in the lawsuit over provisional ballots, accused the state of “unequal application of the law based on race.”
“Smaller, rural counties in Ohio are counting votes they’re not supposed to under these laws, while larger, urban counties are disenfranchising voters for the same errors,” he said. “Members of county boards of elections testified [in court] that this is going on, and the Secretary of State has done absolutely nothing to correct it.”
Not only are homeless people likelier to live in one of the counties that strictly enforce the law, they are likelier to have to cast a provisional ballot, and likelier to make the kind of small error that could cause that ballot to be thrown in the trash.
“We have a high illiteracy rate among homeless people,” Davis explained. “We also have a lot higher chance of people having to vote by provisional ballot, either because they don’t have ID or because they became homeless after the registration deadline and they had no chance to change their address.”
After a federal appeals court allowed the provisional ballot law to stand in early October, NEOCH’s only hope is an eleventh-hour petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is unlikely to want to intervene so close to a major election. Voting-rights advocates fear thousands of people across the state could be disenfranchised by the policy.
Even without these newer state policies, voting is inherently difficult for those who lack stable housing.
In order to register, voters have to provide a mailing address. They can use the address of a homeless shelter or a nearby church, and NEOCH has also set up three centers across the city where people can receive mail.
“A person has the right to register to vote anywhere, even on the park bench they sleep on,” said Davis. “But the Board of Elections has to verify it, and they will still likely have to vote with a provisional ballot.”
Another complicating factor is the high mobility rate of people who are homeless. On average, a person who is homeless will spend just 40 days in a single shelter, according to Davis, and is likely to frequently drift between the homes of various friends and family members. This makes it is easier for that voter to forget to update his or her address on voter registration forms.
Casting a vote
Ohio was one of the states hardest hit by the 2008 recession, with some of the highest job loss and foreclosure rates in the nation. And the state made it worse by rejecting federal funding that would have helped up to 15,000 struggling homeowners stay in their homes. Even eight years later, many Ohio residents are in real pain, and it could get worse for them. The number of older homeless adults is expected to increase by 33 percent over the next decade, and the number could double by 2050.
NEOCH and other groups in Ohio are working to make sure this growing population is able to participate in the political process. This year, they registered more than 1,200 homeless voters in Cuyahoga County alone.
Payton, a native of Cleveland, personally registered 180 voters who were homeless. He told ThinkProgress that while he expects “99 out of 100” to vote Democrat, his mantra has been: “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I would love it if you would vote.”
“This is a time where we really need to get out and vote,” he said. “If you win Ohio, you’re gonna win, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people know that. But I’ve never seen an election like this in all my years. Sometimes I want to laugh and sometimes I want to cry.”
“Sometimes I want to laugh and sometimes I want to cry.”
Payton maneuvered his aging red van over the pothole-riddled streets of Cleveland’s northern edge, past boarded up storefronts and abandoned warehouses with shattered windows. He stopped at shelter after shelter, but could convince few homeless residents to join him for a free ride to the Board of Elections.
At a homeless shelter tucked behind St. Malachi Parish, 32-year-old Cleveland native Abner Rondón assured ThinkProgress that he was planning to vote, but needed a few more days to mull over his options.
“With these two candidates, I just want to put a gun to my head and say, ‘Harambe, here I come!’” he joked.
Rondón has been living at St. Malachi’s for the past few months, as he studies for his GED and attempts to get back on his feet. The former factory worker and bartender said that between mental health struggles, parenting a young daughter, and losing his jobs, “things fell apart” and he landed on the streets.
As Payton revved the engine of the van, Rondón asked how soon he would be making another stop at the shelter. “When you make your second trip,” he promised, “I’ll go with you.”