Georgia removed a half-million voters from its rolls in 2017. The state deemed them inactive because they hadn’t voted in several elections.
But many had something else in common. Nearly 900 voters were registered to the addresses of Atlanta homeless service providers, according to an analysis by WABE and APM Reports.
As Georgia prepares to cancel another 120,000 registrations for inactivity this month, advocates say the policy represents one of several challenges the state’s voters can face when they don’t have a home.
The Address With The Most Removals
Among all the homeless agencies that saw voters removed from their addresses in 2017, one stands out: Crossroads Community Ministries.
The busiest time at the nonprofit is Monday morning.
Crossroads opens its location on Courtland Street in Midtown Atlanta at 9:30 a.m. after being closed all weekend. People line up in the stairwell at the entrance, waiting for their turn to be called.
They’re not here for shelter or housing. Down a hallway inside the agency, Executive Director Tony Johns explains how Crossroads is filling a different need for people who are homeless in Atlanta.
“This is our mailroom,” Johns said.
He’s looking into a small room with a couple of volunteers. The walls are covered with instructions for sorting mail.
One by one people approach a counter and say their names. A volunteer then looks for any letters or packages in a series of wood bins lined up along the back wall.
“We have the mail that is sorted in bins that we just kind of made ourselves,” Johns said.
He said the mailroom operates like a post office for people who are homeless. About 800 people pick up mail here at any given time.
Most don’t have a fixed address of their own. So Johns said the mailroom plays a key role. A lot of state services, like voter registration, still depend on mail.
“This is one of their few connections to that larger system where they could possibly receive not only benefits and things like that, but participate in democracy itself,” Johns said.
But there’s a limit on their ability to participate.
WABE and APM Reports found Georgia removed nearly 500 voters from this address for inactivity in 2017. In fact, the state canceled more registrations at Crossroads than at any other location in the state.
The numbers didn’t surprise Johns.
“Homelessness creates transiency,” he said. “It creates instability. It is instability in every facet of life.”
It’s easy for Johns to imagine that Crossroads’ clients haven’t contacted elections officials or voted often enough — which is what it would take to stay on the voter rolls in Georgia.
To him and other advocates, the state’s voting system isn’t designed for their circumstances.
Voting Without A Home
“Every single voting problem is especially hard for people who are struggling with housing. Every single one,” said Sean Young, legal director at the ACLU of Georgia.
Young outlined the consequences of the other restrictions on voting in Georgia. For example, while some states allow election-day registration, here voters must register 30 days in advance.
“Lower income people move more frequently, and many don’t know they have to update the registration every single time,” Young said.
Then, there’s the rule that voters need to show photo ID at the polls. That becomes a problem for people who are homeless because they often lose their personal documents.
Every single voting problem is especially hard for people who are struggling with housing. Every single one.”
Sean Young, legal director at the ACLU of Georgia
Young said the U.S. and Georgia constitutions clearly allow people with difficult housing situations to vote.
“But a lot of voting laws are written with the perspective of a middle class or wealthy person in mind,” he said.
The laws are also written with a fixed address in mind.
There may be a reason for that, according to Jake Evans. He’s an attorney at Holland & Knight who is also involved in conservative politics.
“It’s a hard question because you can only reside in one district,” Evans said.
The voter’s address determines which district that is. So, he said, it’s important that the address is accurate.
Evans recently won two lawsuits challenging the results of one state legislature race in northeast Georgia because he proved voters misidentified where they lived.
“We have an electoral system, which does matter and which is fairly administered,” he said. “But in order for it to be fairly administered, you have to have those electoral protections.”
Evans said there does have to be a balance between making sure elections are secure and that voters are able to participate in them.
But he thinks Georgia has found that balance, even when considering voters who are homeless.
“I’m confident that if these individuals, like most individuals in Georgia, want to vote, they’re going to have every opportunity to vote,” Evans said.
Left Out Of The System
In the Crossroads mailroom, John Edwards steps up to the counter. He’s been coming to the nonprofit for a year.
He empties out a little black pouch to show all of the documents he’s received at the mailroom, including a voter registration card. That’s a free picture ID the state gives out specifically for elections.
Edwards said he plans to use it.
“You’ve got to always speak, so your voice will be heard,” he said. “Your opinion counts.”
According to voting records, just a little more than 500 people registered to homeless service providers in Atlanta have come out for elections since 2016. That represented fewer than 10% of the registrations.
Tony Johns, the Crossroads director, said he doesn’t believe Georgia’s restrictions on voting are the only reason for the low turnout. He said the stress of not having stable housing likely pushes voting down the list of priorities.
But Johns said there is another factor to consider. He suspects a lot of his clients don’t vote because they feel left out of the system. And stringent voting laws may only add to that feeling, he said.
If election officials wanted to increase voting among people who are homeless, he said, they could simply reach out.
“To make sure that I know they want me to vote and I can vote and they’re not going to put any barriers in front of me,” Johns said. “That’s at least one step toward making me want to participate and feel like my participation matters.”
Earlier in the fall, the secretary of state’s office contacted more than 100 Crossroads clients with a different message.
The notices that arrived in the mailroom said the voters had been flagged for inactivity.
Unless they made contact with election officials or responded to the notices within 30 days, Georgia will cancel their registrations on Dec. 17.
This story was produced with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative reporting unit of American Public Media. See past reporting on voting rights in Georgia by APM Reports and WABE.
Geoff Hing of APM Reports contributed to this story. He’s on Twitter at @geoffhing.