Homeless get support to vote

By Kelly Rix

When working to get out the vote, Chicago’s homeless population has typically been overlooked. But Cook County Clerk David Orr wants to change that.

The Cook County Clerk’s Office has been working with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to mobilize staff and volunteers from 27 different organizations who serve the homeless in Chicago and suburban Cook County.

On Sept. 16, about 60 people from these groups attended a training session hosted by Orr’s office, where they learned how to register voters and became deputy registrars.

Prior to a legislative change in 1992, Illinois required a valid mailing address when registering to vote, which created a barrier to the homeless, said Courtney Greve, spokesperson for the Cook County Clerk.

The law now allows for people to use the address of a relative, church or other organization when registering to vote.

Homeless voters still have to meet all of the same requirements as any other voter. They must be at least 18 years old and a legal United States citizen.

“Voting is a right everyone should exercise, including the homeless,” Orr said in a press release. “We need to dispel the myth that you need a roof over your head to be qualified to vote.”

The law has not changed since 1992, but this is the first time that a training was held specifically for those working with the homeless population.

“Giving people the opportunity to register to vote means full participation as an equal in society, and we think there is great value in that,” said John Pfeiffer, executive director of Inspiration Corporation, a local organization that works to help homeless and low-income people become self-reliant through job training and education programs.

The Night Ministry is also working to register homeless voters. Alicia Adams, spokesperson for The Night Ministry, said if even one new homeless voter is registered, she sees it as a success.

“Making sure everyone that has felt powerless feels empowered-that moves me,” Adams said. “That is part of our mission, to make sure we empower each and every one of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Since attending the Cook County Clerk’s Office training session on Sept. 16, she said she has registered about 15 homeless citizens herself and hopes to register several more voters before the deadline to register new voters on Oct. 7.

However, Orr’s initiative is not without its critics.

Chicago Republican Party Chairman, Eloise Gerson, opposes Orr’s actions and questioned his motives.

“I do not believe taxpayers’ money should be spent on a get-out-the-vote program,” Gerson said. “And you know in this case that only one party will benefit from this program.”

Gerson said she believes the Democratic Party, of which Orr is a member, will benefit from registering homeless voters.

“I think that is assuming that everyone who is down on their luck is automatically a Democrat,” Greve said in response to Gerson’s charge. “I don’t think anyone can make that assumption.”

Get-out-the-vote efforts are the responsibility of political parties and organizations, not of taxpayer-funded public offices, Gerson said.

While the Cook County Clerk’s Office is a public office, Greve said the training provided on Sept. 16 was a negligible cost. The space used for the training was in one of the county’s buildings, at no cost, and only one staff member was used for the hour-and-a-half long training session, Greve said.

“The goal of this training was to encourage more participation in the democratic process,” Greve said. “We had interest from 27 different organizations that work with the homeless who wanted to be trained to register their clients to vote, and that’s what we did.”

Pfeiffer appreciates Orr’s efforts and said he will feel better knowing that he has done all he can register as many homeless and disenfranchised voters as possible.

“Freedom is having the right to vote–to participate in our government and be heard,” Pfeiffer said.

Homeless and very low-income people are living at the bottom of the economic pyramid, Pfeiffer said, and have been left out of the American dream. Helping them vote is a chance for them to know their voices are heard, she said.

“They are clearly people who are suffering from bad economic policy, bad education policy and bad housing policy,” Pfeiffer said. “I think they see this election as a time for a real serious re-evaluation of American domestic policy, and they are looking for a change.”