By Kristen Alice
March 18, 2021
Registering to vote in Hawaii may seem easy, and compared to labyrinthine requirements in many other states, it is. But to people experiencing homelessness, our system’s prerequisites can make casting a ballot impossible.
Last year I helped organize a voter registration drive at homeless shelters across Hawaii island. It was a many-handed effort, involving multiple calls to the county elections office, printing posters, coordinating with shelter staff and residents, borrowing secure lockboxes, shuttling the lockboxes among shelters, and returning them to the county.
The drive was a success, with several people registering for the first time. But it laid bare the fact that, for our neighbors experiencing homelessness, voter registration requires monumental effort on behalf of staff, volunteers and voters themselves.
This is beyond inefficient — it’s often prohibitive, and leaves voting looking less like a right and more like a privilege. The question we should ask ourselves now is, “Why do some people have to jump through so many hoops to exercise their constitutional right to vote?”
When one of our neighbors becomes homeless, she loses more than just her home. Often she loses transportation, internet access and her mailing address. Her identification and documents are easily lost or destroyed without a secure place to store them. Each of these losses can present another hurdle to voting.
When my colleagues assist her, they do not simply place her in permanent housing and abandon her. They care for her as a whole person, and one of the first things they do is help her replace her driver’s license or state identification.
Once this is done, they help her apply for medical care, assistance and employment. If she needs it, they teach her about household management and personal finance. They take her to visit homes and meet landlords, and she works hard to make a good impression. As she settles into her new home, she becomes confident in her role in the community.
A key part of her role is civic engagement, and having a say in how her community is run. When it comes to homelessness, she communicates the impact of practices like bulldozing an encampment, because she was there. Her voice is vital, because she intimately understands homelessness in a way those of us who have not experienced it cannot.
Under current law, voter registration is another obstacle on her road to rejoining her community. And let’s face it — it’s not likely a high priority compared to working, budgeting, grocery shopping, cleaning, enrolling her children in school and helping them with homework.
But the law doesn’t take that into account. She still needs to complete an exhausting list of tasks before she can register, and she may not know where to start. We might shudder at voter disenfranchisement in Georgia as we pat ourselves on the back for our efficient mail-in voting system. But does that even matter to someone without internet, who can’t register online? What difference does it make when she still can’t access the ballot?
Hawaii Senate Bill 159 would give her that access by automatically registering her when she obtains a driver’s license or state identification card, and she’d remain free to opt-out. She — and all of us — will benefit if automatic voter registration is enacted in Hawaii as it has been in more than 20 states and Washington, D.C.
It’s rare to see a bill that saves money and brings people back into the community. Last year, mail-in voting helped more people engage by removing a barrier. This year, let’s remove another and extend the ballot to those facing the greatest hardships, by passing Senate Bill 159.
Kristen Alice is director of community relations for Hope Services Hawaii, and vice chairperson for Community Alliance Partners, a coalition of social service providers working to end homelessness on Hawaii island.