Do homeless people vote? Although they are citizens of Canada, the political participation of homeless people has rarely been considered. The health of our democracy should be measured by our commitment to ensuring that the most vulnerable citizens are able to participate in the democratic process. The widespread assumption, however, is that homeless people are apathetic, are not interested in politics and do not vote, so discussions about electoral access tend not to include them. Although election officials do try to reach out to vulnerable populations, and the rules do allow homeless people to vote, much more needs to be done to ensure that homeless people are both encouraged to vote and given equal opportunity to do so.
In research for my master’s thesis at the University of Guelph, I examined the barriers to voting for homeless people in Toronto. I conducted 45 qualitative interviews. I interviewed 28 homeless individuals from three shelters and drop-in centres in the city; 9 service providers from seven institutions serving homeless people; 5 politicians (past and current MPs, MPPs and city councillors) representing areas where homeless people are concentrated; and representatives from the elections agencies: Elections Canada, Elections Ontario and the Toronto City Clerk’s Office.
I found that homeless people are interested in and knowledgeable about politics. Three-quarters of those I interviewed expressed strong and informed opinions on political parties, candidates and policies. The homeless people I spoke to were eager to discuss political matters and expressed interest in learning more about how they might vote, particularly since most were not even aware that they were allowed to do so. The marginalization of homeless people often leads to the assumption that they simply aren’t interested in participating in politics. In turn, this assumption then reinforces and justifies a lack of policy initiatives to support the political engagement of this segment of the public. However, my research shows that homeless Canadians do vote. Half of those I interviewed had voted in the October 2015 federal election (the national turnout was 68 percent), although only a third were homeless at the time.
The homeless people I spoke to were eager to discuss political matters and expressed interest in learning more about how they might vote; most were not even aware that they were allowed to do so.
The process of voting for citizens without a permanent address in Canada is complex. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with different rules at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Harmonizing these rules would be a good start to ensure greater electoral access for homeless Canadians. The requirements for identification are among the rules that vary considerably, and lack of acceptable ID is frequently pinpointed as a barrier to voting by politicians, homeless people and service providers. Often, homeless people must provide different documentation as proof of address and they need assistance from service providers at shelters and drop-in centres, but many service providers, politicians and even electoral officials are as ill-informed as the homeless people themselves about the requirements.
While electoral officials insist that they routinely send information and guidelines about the voting process for homeless people to shelters and drop-in centres, the people who work at those organizations often report either not receiving the information or finding the information is too complex and not easily accessible for the target audience. Information about voting must be better distributed, in a comprehensive and accessible fashion. To encourage homeless Canadians to vote and to limit the factors that impede their participation, service providers, politicians and election agencies must work together.
Service providers are often the first line of contact for homeless people accessing services, and they can encourage homeless people to vote and participate in politics. However, the level of activity in service organizations related to elections varies considerably, so does the information they provide to homeless clients about voting; the proportion of homeless people who vote may depend on which services they access, which will influence which organizations they connect with and even which individual service providers they get information from. Furthermore, institutions generally lack the resources to encourage their clients to vote and ensure they are aware of the process, regardless of the intentions and personal political engagement of service providers.
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Politicians are vital actors in ensuring that homeless people are able to exercise their right to vote; however, they rarely include this population in their campaign efforts. This is true even though institutions serving homeless people provide convenient spaces for campaigning, especially for canvassing. If candidates can travel to senior care facilities, surely they can also visit shelters and drop-in centres to meet with citizens there. Adding these locations to the campaign tour would not only encourage homeless people to vote but also begin to bridge the gap between homeless people and their elected officials, improving an often hostile relationship that is identified as contributing to the marginalization of the population.
Election agencies need to ensure that their information on voting actually reaches homeless people, and they should educate service providers so that they can help get the word out. Agencies must also train polling clerks on the process of voting for citizens without a permanent address. Homeless individuals reported being turned away from the polls by officials who told them they could not vote. In other instances, they were told they would have to return at a later time when someone who knows the process would be present. These occurrences add to the embarrassment and discomfort experienced by homeless people and undermines their trust in the electoral system. In Toronto, some polling stations for municipal elections are located within institutions serving homeless people. Participation rates among homeless voters are notably higher at these locations, so this may be a key tool for reducing some of the barriers to voting for this population.
Homeless people are deeply affected by government policy. Their voices are vital not only to ensuring their equal citizenship but also to the production and successful implementation of policies aimed at reducing poverty and homelessness in Canada. When discussions of social policy include consideration of their political participation, homeless people can be seen as contributing citizens. As it stands, their voting tendencies are rarely investigated, adding to their stigmatization and impeding their access to a democratic right — one that is guaranteed to us all.
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