Cleveland.com Editorial: Voting rights for homeless part of Supreme Court voter-purge case from Ohio

This editorial, by Director Chris Knestrick, was published on Cleveland.com on the day of the Voter Purge case at the US Supreme Court. NEOCH was one of the plaintiffs in the case.

http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/01/voting_rights_for_homeless_als.html

Men of the Lakeside Avenue homeless shelter in Cleveland are assigned sleeping bunks and mats in this 2002 file photo. The rights of the homeless in Ohio to stay on the voting rolls even without a fixed address, other than, sometimes, an intersection, are an issue in the Ohio voter-culling case to be argued at the U.S. Supreme Court today.(Roadell Hickman, The Plain Dealer, File, 2002)

Men of the Lakeside Avenue homeless shelter in Cleveland are assigned sleeping bunks and mats in this 2002 file photo. The rights of the homeless in Ohio to stay on the voting rolls even without a fixed address, other than, sometimes, an intersection, are an issue in the Ohio voter-culling case to be argued at the U.S. Supreme Court today.(Roadell Hickman, The Plain Dealer, File, 2002)

CLEVELAND -- Every vote counts -- and our democracy is strongest when each voice can be heard, and every eligible citizen can cast their vote. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) believes that participation in the democratic process is critical for those struggling with their housing.

For decades, we have worked with Cuyahoga County officials through litigation and organizing to assure that homeless people have access to voting.

Our work - and more importantly the fundamental rights of the populations we serve - is at stake in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, which will be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States today.

I have over 10 years of experience working with the homeless community in Cleveland and directing advocacy efforts with the international and local community, and in July 2017, I became NEOCH's director. Since then, my time has been devoted to our mission to organize and empower homeless and at-risk men, women and children to break the cycle of poverty through public education, advocacy and the creation of nurturing environments. My work is about having people experiencing homelessness gain access to the seats and halls of power where decisions that impact them are being made.

Because the voting booth is one of the last places that people can turn to change policy, ensuring that our members and the people we serve can participate in the democratic process is at the core of our mission. Over the years, we have conducted voter-registration drives at homeless shelters and drop-in centers, coordinating and providing transportation to the polls, and conducted educational training sessions about how homeless men and women can cast a ballot and have it counted.

We know that members of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless were purged from the voting rolls. Therefore, speaking out against the practices challenged in the Husted lawsuit - in which NEOCH is a plaintiff - is a necessary piece of our mission and work to ensure long-term success and prevent those struggling with housing from feeling disempowered in our democratic system.

Ohio's county boards of elections used a "supplemental process," under the direction of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, that, for example, unfairly purged hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible voters in 2015 from the Ohio voter rolls who had not voted in an election since 2008. More than 40,000 citizens were removed in Cuyahoga County alone.

Furthermore, voters were notified by mail and those who did not affirmatively respond triggered the process, which could lead to their ultimate removal. This process falsely assumed that voters who fail to vote in multiple elections have moved, ignoring the multitude of other reasons someone might not participate in each election.

Being un-housed makes life precarious, and getting to the ballot box can be difficult when you are simply struggling to survive. Many members of NEOCH and the people we serve, for example, are frequently on the move and are unable to provide a permanent address at which they would receive such a notice. While Ohio allows such individuals the ability to use intersections and other nontraditional addresses, it makes it that much more difficult to receive notices via mail or ensure that they remain registered to vote prior to elections they wish to cast a ballot in. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for these same individuals to not participate in every single election due to difficult personal circumstances or otherwise unforeseen events. We know that homelessness is difficult, but voting should not be.

This process is particularly troubling as Ohio is historically one of the key states that factor into who wins presidential elections.

It is critical that the Supreme Court strike down Ohio's illegal process to ensure that all eligible Ohioans can vote, and that other states around the country are not able to remove voters in a similar fashion. Thus, the Ohio voter purge should not just trouble my fellow Ohioans, but all U.S. citizens.

I worry that if processes like the one used to remove otherwise eligible Ohio voters are upheld by the court, it will send a clear message to the homeless community that their votes do not matter, and their voices should not be heard.

There are already enough barriers for Ohioans - and individuals around the country - struggling with housing day to day; the constitutional right to vote should not be one of those barriers. Voting may not be a priority for each of these individuals at the time of each election, but protecting their right to vote is just as important to their survival as finding housing so that they can have a say in the laws and actions of the United States.

Chris Knestrick is director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.