You have a right to vote. But what if you’re homeless?
September 29, 2004
Registering to vote is usually the least of your worries if you’re homeless or a felon.
Ex-cons have no choice in the matter, and transients have a burden of proof they often can’t provide.
“You have to prove you’ve lived somewhere for 30 days, even if it’s under a tree at the Carson River,” said Carson City Chief Elections Clerk Tammy Caldwell. “I don’t know how you would do that.”
But the problem hardly ever comes up, anyway. Out of the estimated 500 homeless people in Carson City, local elections officials report only 22 people with “no fixed address” voted in the last presidential election.
“No fixed address” applies to anyone without a permanent address, including truck drivers and anyone with a job on the road.
People who choose that option are permitted to vote in the federal elections, for president and vice president.
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“In the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve never dealt with anyone who was homeless and wanted to vote,” Caldwell said.
Carson City Deputy Elections Clerk Sue Merriwether said people without their own address can register to vote, using a friend’s or shelter address.
Those who have neither option can use the local post office’s general delivery address, though that option only qualifies them for the “no fixed address” voting.
Scott Ringwald, 35, could vote, but it’s too much of a hassle right now, he said.
He’s staying at a low-rent, clean and sober men’s shelter in Carson City and trying to break free of a bad crowd.
He hasn’t voted in four years.
Working sporadically as a bartender and card dealer, his unstable work and lifestyle doesn’t allow for political involvement, he said. Besides, he never really thought his vote counted much anyway.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve got a whole bunch of other stuff on my mind,” he said, smoking a cigarette like it was his last one.
Registering to vote is useless, he said, because he doesn’t know where he’ll be from month to month.
“I think Bush will win, but I don’t care,” Ringwald said. “I just wanna go home.”
Home is Los Angeles, where he once had a well-paying job, a girlfriend and a big house, he said.
He didn’t have car until just a few days ago, but he just got a good deal on a used Oldsmobile for $100.
He spent his afternoon in Carson City Tuesday watching the Andy Griffith Show and waiting for a call to deal cards from Harrah’s in Reno. Between shows, he explained his disappointment in the political process.
“People who run for president are egotistical maniacs,” he said. “Think about it. They’re on a power trip. Why else would you want to run for president?”
Even though he could use his shelter’s address to obtain a complete ballot, Ringwald doesn’t think his vote might improve things.
“This may sound stupid, but one vote doesn’t change anything,” he said.
Besides, he said, registering takes too long; 10 times longer than buying a pack of cigarettes, he said.
“You’ve got to fill out this huge form,” he said, shaking his head. “To get these, all you’ve got to do is walk up, throw some money on the counter and say ‘gimme a pack of Marlboro Lights.'”
Ringwald’s roommate, Robert, has no choice when it comes to voting. A convicted felon released from a California prison last week, he can’t vote until his parole is up in seven years.
According to California law, an ex-felon cannot vote until his parole is over.
He won’t talk about his offense. He said he misses having a voice and making a difference, no matter how insignificant.
“Yeah, I’d vote if I could,” Robert said. “But it’s not something I have control over. Right away you’re labeled as a bad person and there are so many things you’re not allowed to do.”
For now, he’s staying at the shelter and trying to save up enough cash to get to his hometown of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
In Nevada, felons who have not had their civil rights restored through a court petitioning process are not eligible to register and vote.
Robert said if he could, he would vote for Bush.
“We’ve got a war going on and he’s been involved for four years. He probably knows what he’s doing.”
Recent state legislation has provided for restoration of the right to vote for someone honorably discharged from prison, probation or parole, with certain exceptions related to the seriousness of the crime he committed.
Robert said he’s paid his debt to society, and he should be able to participate in the democratic process.
Dan Burk, registrar of voters for Washoe County, said everyone who can vote, should vote.
He said proactive efforts by Washoe County Elections have helped: He said 175 people without fixed addresses registered to vote in Washoe County this year.
“No one should be denied the right to vote because of their economic situation,” Burk said. “We encourage (the homeless) to go to the registrar’s office and indicate what their situation is. Our hope is for them to get a full ballot.”
Ringwald, however, said the odds are slim that he’ll ever vote again.
“What’s the point,” he said. “We never really know the truth anyway. I’d be basing my vote on bull….”
Contact reporter Robyn Moormeister at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.
NO ADDRESS? People without a fixed address can register on election day, but can vote only in the federal presidential and vice-presidential elections.
For questions about voting, call the Carson City Elections Department at 887-2087, drop by the county clerk’s office, or visit the Carson City Clerk-Recorder’s website at http://www.carson-city.nv.us/clerk/elections/index.htm.