Fighting Voter Suppression in Underrepresented Communities

Nonprofits are stepping up to ensure that all voters have access to the voting booth this election. Several organizations working hard to get the vote out including the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), but the COVID19 pandemic has transformed the landscape into a digital divide between the haves and have-nots, making early-voting campaigns the clarion-call for encouraging people to complete their voter registration.

Protecting the rights of voters can be particularly daunting, and especially for the traditionally disadvantaged, and this year with government lock-downs and business shut-downs, lower middle-class populations are experiencing near crisis levels in unemployment, low wages, unstable housing, cabin-fever stress, not to mention caregiving for loved ones. To make matters worse, even though national legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 guarantee all citizens the right to vote, variability among the different states still exist, especially in the pan-handle. Those with mental health problems, which form a majority of the at-risk for suicide, homelessness, drug abuse, and unemployment, can no longer use public libraries to access supportive resources and free wifi, for example.

According to WebMD, people with mental illness, such as schizophrenia, should receive fair treatment and should be afforded certain rights. These include basic rights, such as their right to privacy, to receive age and culturally appropriate services, be kept informed on treatment options and alternatives, and be treated with respect and dignity. Under no condition should there be discrimination based upon age, race, or type of illness.

The sad part is that discrimination against underrepresented populations often happens anyway through systemic microaggression, rigid conformity, and favoritism.

Under conditions forced by the pandemic and interracial strife, there is near martial-law type policing occurring in major metropolitan areas, and ironically, ethnic enclaves are being surveilled and profiled more intensely than ever before. This is why the Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 campaign launched a series of webinars to train outreach workers to get the vote out. NLIHC discusses how voting early will matter more this election cycle to relieve stress on the mail system, allow voters to plan their vote, and help voters avoid long lines. Both NLIHC and COHHIO are nonpartisan, however, in Voter Mobilization training, the experts point to factors in why low-income voters become apathetic. The irony is that critical issues such as access to affordable housing, rent control, and eviction moratoriums often matter a lot to low-income voters.

New homeless, Dupont Circle, Washington, DC

With vacated office buildings near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., homeless people deserve better housing options (photo by AGN)

Community Solutions and core agencies have prioritized the following specific asks to Congress: $100 billion in emergency rental assistance;  a national eviction moratorium that is comprehensive; and $11.5 billion to support the work of homeless service agencies. In a press release, Community Solutions decries Congress for taking summer recess while the eviction moratorium was expiring:

“Eviction relief is desperately needed for millions of people who face eviction as a patchwork of local and state soon expire or have already expired, including the CARES Act narrowly-defined eviction moratorium, which expired in July 24. The analysis conducted by Dan O’Flaherty demonstrated that homelessness could increase by 40-45% this year if homelessness follows unemployment trends and mitigation efforts are not enacted.”

The nonpartisan nature of holding politicians to their promises is an important plank of the political platform for safe and affordable housing. According to the State of the Homeless 2020 report published by the Coalition for the Homeless based in New York City, New York State is failing to provide adequate housing vouchers and stability, prevent homelessness, meet the need for shelters, and address the concerns of unsheltered New Yorkers. Rather than treat homelessness like the urgent humanitarian crisis that it actually is, time and again, U.S. politicians and bureaucrats on both sides of the aisle siphon away funds intended for the homeless to fund their agencies, with only token amounts trickling down to provide actual housing for applicants, especially for the extremely low-income. Instead, what is taking place is third-party marketing of available affordable units in brand new buildings, with many qualified applicants never even hearing about it before such units are sold “on the market” to leasers at the standard median income (100% AMI) range.

Regarding political candidates keeping their promises, according to the State of the Homeless 2020 Executive Summary :

“New Yorkers struggling to survive on the streets face increased criminalization through an array of new initiatives implemented by Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. These new programs deploy NYPD, transit police, and other law enforcement officials to specifically target homeless individuals.”

Ensuring that homeless and newly displaced Americans have access to voting is also a growing challenge in 2020 due to devastating hurricanes in the Southeast coastal states, and in the West due to the raging wildfires. Another organization attempting to mobilize and train social services staff and volunteers is the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC). In a recent training session, panelists shared ways in which technology is being used to help register people undergoing homelessness. For instance, Harlem United in NYC is holding outdoor voter drives, and mobilizing volunteers to provide free give-aways while encouraging people to sign up. NHCHC staff also describe their new app: Whether using a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer, the app is a secure, quick, easy way to register to vote, and request the mail-in ballot. Other outreach workers have prepared toolkits with anything from virtual cartoons, to dialogue templates. Social workers emphasize that such strategies can be doubled up with related tasks in assessing the condition of their clients. What are their immediate needs, and how does this connect with how voting can help improve things?

ER staff empowered to help patients vote helps homeless patients or caregivers register to vote while waiting

As NLIHC points out, each state has different rules regarding homeless voters. All citizens have the right to vote, and there is no need to self-identify as homeless. Many states allow homeless people to receive mail at the shelter, and this could be their effective place of residency. Other states, such as Alaska, Georgia, tribal reservations, and rural areas allow options for describing or mapping sleeping locations. Anywhere where a displaced person receives official mail may work. Even legislators are jumping on board in providing new accommodations for Early Voting under an emergency. Senate Bill 3529, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, was introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) on March 18, 2020 with 35 Democratic co-sponsors. The bill requires each state to establish a contingency plan to enable voters to vote in federal elections during an emergency. It ensures an Early Voting window of 20 days to vote either in-person or by mail; and also allows for timely processing two weeks before Election Day.

There is an incredible amount of stress and tension in the society right now due to mounting unemployment, evictions, crowded living conditions, financial instability, domestic abuse, regional weather-related catastrophes, recent deaths, COVID19 pandemic, and frustration over the inadequacy of government assistance. People who are at risk of mental health crisis include homeless and displaced families, forced separations due to detention or eviction, formerly incarcerated persons pushed to the margins of existence, elderly patients released from nursing homes, extremely low-income minorities living in urban areas, victims of race or gender profiling by police, victims of human traffickers, laid off workers, people with no health insurance, and special education students frustrated by reduced support services, to name a few examples why.

Campaign Flyer US2020


Perhaps it is no coincidence that September 2020 is also National Suicide Prevention Month. The National Alliance of Mental Health provides #Vote4MentalHealth advocacy because it understands the interconnections between elected officials and their role in deciding what mental health services and supports are available in the community. The #Vote4MentalHealth campaign encourages those suffering from mental illness and those involved with caregiving to show their commitment in improving care, innovation, and recovery, and in exercising their voting rights.

Blogger/Suicide-survivor Katherine Ponte contributed an essay earlier this month, “Suicide Prevention: Saving Lives Now and Beyond,” in which she writes:

“Suicide rates rose 25% in the U.S. from 1999 to 2016. In 2018, nearly 50,000 people died by suicide, around 11 million seriously thought about it, about 3 million made a plan and over 1 million attempted suicide. These numbers represent immeasurable tragic losses to human life, friends, family and society. There is an urgent need to address the causes. Most suicide prevention programs focus on the now — the risk factors, which are essential. However, these programs should also factor on protective factors to have a longer lasting impact on those vulnerable to suicideThese protective factors can not only reduce suicide risk, they can be good for general well-being and foster happiness.

Ponte goes on to list all the potential risk factors, but more importantly, she describes how to counter those risk factors by doing our own “Reason for Living” self-assessment. The form was developed by the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington to allow people to rediscover all the reasons why they should continue to live.

Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, Socialist (Write-in), or Green Party (Write-in) supporter, the 2020 election outcomes locally, statewide, and nationally will depend on your involvement in voting. Often in close elections, all votes, even provisional ballots, are counted, and even subject to recounts.

Don’t let your discouragement about the general state of national affairs, the doom-and-gloom naysayers, voter intimidation, or the difficulty of the times psyche you out!

NAMI, NLIHC, NHCHC, social service providers, the DMV and public service agencies will support you in overcoming challenges in registering your current living and mailing address in time.

Top image from social media promotional resources, US2020 Voter Registration drive, partner with National Low Income Housing Coalition