On Monday night, before he went to sleep between two food trucks in downtown Austin, Garland Green had a plan to tuck his voter registration certificate inside his wallet, which he’d then chain to his waist. Green wanted to vote for the first time Tuesday, and he was not taking any chances. Over the years, he had lost important documents or had them stolen countless times, and because of Texas’s strict voter ID law, he won’t be able to cast a ballot without the certificate. If he does, he plans on voting for Bernie Sanders, whose Medicare for All and student debt forgiveness policies he’s discussed with friends on the streets. “Otherwise,” he said, “I’m not too interested in politics.”
Given recent changes to the state’s stringent voter ID law, Green should be able to vote on Tuesday with his registration card and a signed affidavit swearing he can’t easily get an ID. In 2016, after courts repeatedly found the state’s voter laws to be discriminatory against minorities, a Texas federal court ordered the state to adopt an interim system. In 2017, the Legislature passed a revised voter ID law allowing those without valid identification to vote, provided they present supporting, easier-to-obtain documentation like a registration certificate and sign an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, saying they possess “reasonable impediment” to obtaining a valid ID. But because Green doesn’t have regular internet access, and voter information is hard to come by without it, he had no idea of the changes and was simply hoping he wouldn’t be turned back.
Despite the tweaks in 2017, voting is still a challenge for many in Texas, especially for the more than 25,000 people experiencing homelessness in the state. Not only do they face the difficulties of life on the streets, they also must overcome obstacles imposed by the state, including burdens on obtaining ID, a lack of readily accessible voter information, and a voter challenge system that puts those who are homeless at special risk of being taken off the voter roles.
Texas’s official voter website boasts, “Voting is easy, so is getting the facts.” Interviews with dozens of prospective homeless voters the week before the election, however, show that neither breezy claim is exactly true.
Voter turnout among the homeless is low, for a variety of reasons beyond the ID law. Some homeless people I spoke to referenced prior felony convictions, which restrict their access to the polls. One man I spoke to in downtown Austin had missed the deadline to request an absentee ballot, so in order to vote he would need to hitch a ride to San Antonio, where he was registered from a shelter. Still others feel removed from the electoral process even if they are eligible. A military veteran in Camp R.A.T.T. (Responsible Adult Transition Town), a homeless encampment established by Governor Gregg Abbott in November after he ordered sweeps of camps in downtown Austin, said that he was “too worried about what’s going to happen today, what’s going to happen tomorrow,” to think about voting. A man in his late twenties said he had no interest in voting for candidates he suspected “would turn their noses up at” him.
But it’s clear the state’s voter ID laws—passed despite a lack of evidence of voter fraud—are making it harder for many who do want to engage in the election. In order to vote, a voter’s first option is to obtain one of the seven valid IDs as established by the Legislature. A photo identification from a shelter won’t suffice, but a gun license will. For some, mainly those in shelters, obtaining a valid ID can be simple, with expenses frequently paid by charities. (Two men staying at Austin’s Front Steps home told me it is “near impossible” to be unable to get an ID.) Amy Price, the communications and development director of Front Steps, says helping people get IDs is one of the organization’s top priorities, because they are useful for obtaining other services.
But for those living on the streets, the process can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Louis Bedford IV of the Texas Civil Rights Project notes that even the supposedly “free” option, the Election Identification Certificate, requires documents to verify identity and citizenship, such as a birth certificate, that can cost money to obtain.
“For the oldest, the lowest, the slowest, it is certainly an impediment,” said Donald Montgomery, a resident at Camp R.A.T.T. “It’s not that hard to get an ID, but it’s work, it’s a couple days out of your life, and there are a lot of folks who don’t have the horsepower to make that trip.”
And even though the 2017 law allows voters without an ID to vote after signing an affidavit, the supporting documents—a government certificate like a registration card showing one’s name and address, a current utility bill, a bank statement, a government check, a paycheck, or birth certificate—can be hard to obtain without work, housing, or consistent access to mail.
Moreover, none of the prospective voters I spoke to the week before the election—even the few supporters of the state’s voter ID laws—knew of the ability to vote without a valid ID. Poll workers may not know the law either. According to the Texas Election Code, they are required to proactively offer the “reasonable impediment” affidavit to those who do not present valid IDs. But Bedford notes that there have been instances where this simply doesn’t happen. Some experts also worry that the affidavit will scare off people living on the margins.
Another potential obstacle: unlike the court-ordered affidavit, which allowed voters to describe their “reasonable impediment” in their own words, the 2017 law provides a checklist of only seven potential reasons. “Poverty” or “I live on the streets and have no access to the internet to figure out what I needed to bring” are not listed. And it’s not hard to fill out the form incorrectly. An Associated Press investigation found that in 2016 at least 500 affidavits were filed by people who did not have a reasonable impediment. Given the state’s high-profile pursuit of voter fraud charges—notably in the cases of Rose Ortega and Crystal Mason—some voters might be wary of signing the affidavit.
Problems can also arise before a homeless voter even gets to the polls. Texas law provides that any voter can challenge the registration of another based on “personal knowledge” that the qualifications for voting haven’t been met. Because homeless people frequently register from nonresidential addresses—like churches or shelters, where they can receive mail—they are especially susceptible to challenges. If they don’t subsequently respond to mail asking them to confirm their address, their registrations can be suspended and canceled. This means that many homeless people who live far from where they receive mail, like those in Camp R.A.T.T., can have their voting rights stripped without their knowledge.
One resident in Camp R.A.T.T., Susan Peake, told me of the difficulty in establishing one’s residence, given that the U.S. Postal Service does not deliver mail to the camp. “Because I’m homeless it is hard to say this is my residence,” she said. “It is—but it’s also a temporary address so I can’t get any communications here.”
In 2018, Houston conservative activist Alan Vera, who is connected to the controversial vote-monitoring organization True the Vote, challenged the registration of more than four thousand voters, many of whom a Houston Press investigation found had registered from homeless shelters. The Harris County Attorney’s Office dismissed the challenges, pointing out that it was practically impossible for Vera to possess “personal knowledge” of thousands of voter registration issues. But voter challenges can intimidate prospective voters from even bothering to vote.
Add up all the obstacles, and it’s clear that the system is not built in a way to make it easy for those experiencing homelessness to vote. “Even the slightest impediment to those experiencing homelessness or poverty is going to be seen as another ‘no you can’t,’” Diane Holloway, the communications/volunteer director at Trinity Center Austin, told me.
Nonetheless, the 2020 election has generated lots of interest in Camp R.A.T.T., according to Peake and Dalzell Waldrop, who campaigned for Beto O’Rourke in 2018 and will be voting Tuesday with an expired, but valid, ID. While many homeless voters are especially concerned with health care—medical bills are the main cause of U.S. bankruptcy, which often precedes homelessness—they otherwise have views as varied as the rest of the public. Some mentioned women’s rights, others gun rights; some cited affordable housing, while one man at the Front Steps house quoted Margaret Thatcher to caution against major expansions of the social safety net. One man told me he planned to vote for Greg Abbott in 2022 because of his role in the creation of Camp R.A.T.T.
Still, David Montgomery, a former election judge who has held onto “I voted” stickers from recent years among the few possessions in the back of his tarp-covered pickup, said he only expected a handful of the hundred or so people in the camp to vote. One of the key effects of the voter ID law is not to turn people back at the polls, but to keep them from ever heading there at all.
“I wrote a positive letter to Governor Abbott when I first came here, because this camp is a positive step,” Montgomery said. “But the Republicans aren’t known for ease of voter access.”