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The homeless vote: Law presents integrity concerns, voter barriers

By   /   November 22, 2011  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — A person can be homeless and a Wisconsin resident.

And a person can be homeless and vote.

But the current controversy involving state Sen. Lena Taylor has shed light on an issue that has taken a backseat to other election debates, such as voter ID and same-day registration: How to protect homeless people’s right to vote while preventing fraud at Wisconsin elections.

Advocates for the homeless population say recent changes to election law make it harder for transients to vote, while homeless voting, as alleged in the Taylor story, have opened some serious questions about the integrity of votes.

“Obviously, somebody who is homeless should be able to vote,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“The problem is if they move elsewhere that might not make it into the records the election officials keep, and if they’re registering in more than one location, that’s obviously a problem, because if they’re registering once, twice, three times, then they may be able to vote once, twice, three times,” he said.

'Lovehouse' voting

Using an open records request, the Wisconsin-based, conservative news outlet MediaTrackers reported late Monday that 36 people have active voter registrations at an apartment property owned by Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat, and that at least 23 people voted in the hotly contested April Supreme Court election using that address.

Media Trackers also revealed that Taylor’s mother ran an alleged homeless shelter, "Mama Delta's Lovehouse," from the site. The nonprofit has been shut down.

The charge is that an excessive number of voters registered as residents of the property, zoned for significantly fewer occupants, and Taylor may have been complicit in voter fraud.

Some of the registered voters, Media Trackers said, were felons still on extended supervision, and others appear to be from out of state.

Taylor denied wrongdoing, saying in a statement, “There has not been any accessory to voter fraud committed as stated in these accusations.”

Rules of residency

From January through October 2010, homeless shelters had served 14,457 people, according to the Wisconsin Department of Commerce Bureau of Supportive Housing. But that number doesn’t include homeless people on the street or living with family and friends.

State law does allow people without a permanent residence to use a homeless shelter as their residential address for voting purposes, if the shelter agrees.

Homeless people have the same voting rights as anyone else, provided that they haven’t had their voting rights stripped for another reason, such as a felony conviction.

According to the Government Accountability Board, or GAB, which oversees the state’s elections:

  • Homeless individuals may designate a fixed location as their residence for voting purposes if it is an identifiable location in Wisconsin that could conceivably serve as a temporary residence. That could be a homeless shelter, a park bench or other location where a homeless individual may spend time.
  • Homeless voters may continue to claim that residence as a voting address, even if they no longer physically reside at that location or they intend to return. That allows voters who had stayed with friends or family to continue using that address for voting purposes.
  • Homeless voters may use a physical location that is not a valid mailing address. If they can describe the place where they stay so the municipal clerk can locate it on a map, a park, street or alley, that location may be used as their “residence” for voting purposes.
  • However, homeless individuals still may have to provide a document for proof of residence, and any such document would have to identify that physical location.

Often homeless voters produce a check or other document from a unit of government, including an affidavit from public or private social service agencies, according to GAB.

Advocates for the homeless population Tuesday said they are worried about the effect of new voting laws passed this year.

Voter ID

The homeless population is not exempt from the new law requiring voters to present a photo ID, and shelters are spreading information to their residents about the availability of free IDs from the state.

But homeless people may have difficulty obtaining a copy of their birth certificate, said Wendy Weckler, program director for Hope House, a Milwaukee homeless shelter. The state requires a person prove their name and date of birth with either a birth certificate, valid passport or certificate of naturalization in order to get a state ID.

Weckler, too, said she is worried about a new law extending the residency requirement for Wisconsinites. Voters now have to live in a district for 28 days, instead of 10, before they can vote there.

Hope House allows residents to stay for 30 days, Weckler said. So a 28-day residency period makes it all-but-impossible to establish residency there for voting purposes.

“A lot of (our residents) are wondering if they even can vote," she said.

As for concerns that homeless people can register to vote, and perhaps actually vote, at various places, Weckler said Hope House requires its residents to submit a U.S. Post Office change of address form when they move out.

Von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation, said Wisconsin still doesn’t do enough to ensure the integrity of its voter-registration rolls, such as automatically checking new voter registrations against records from the state departments of Motor Vehicles and Corrections.