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2012 Voter Rights/Registration Packet

Court Decisions on Homeless People’s Voting Rights

Prior to the 1980’s when homelessness grew into the national problem we know today, state election laws did not adequately address the issue of voter registration by people without a home.  Listed below are selected court cases in which courts have addressed the ambiguities in state election laws and found that homeless people cannot be denied the right to vote. Courts in some of the cases below found the following principles.

  • A requirement that people live in a traditional dwelling in order to vote placed an unconstitutional constraint on the voting rights of homeless persons. Coalition for the Homeless v. Jensen, 187 A.D.2d 582 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992).
  • States should use a broad interpretation of the term “residence” to include any place, including a non-traditional dwelling, that an individual inhabits with the intent to remain for an indefinite period. Pitts v. Black, 608 F.Supp. 696 (S.D.N.Y. 1984); In re-Application for Voter Registration of Willie R. Jenkins, D.C. Bd. of Elections and Ethics (June 7, 1984).

  • When registering to vote, homeless people may designate a shelter, park, or street corner as their residence. Fischer v. Stout, 741 P.2d 217 (Alaska 1987).

Remember, each case is unique. This information is intended to describe principles from key cases in specific jurisdictions, not to act as legal advice. If you or your clients need help with a specific problem, contact a lawyer.

Pitts v. Black, 608 F.Supp. 696 (S.D.N.Y. 1984).
Plaintiffs challenged a New York State Election Law provision forbidding people living on the streets from registering to vote.  The District Court held that the New York City Board of Election’s application of the residency requirement disenfranchised an entire group of people, which is forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause.  The court found that a person’s “residence” is the place at the center of the individual’s life and the place where he/she presently intends to remain.  The court reasoned that people need only have a specific location that they consider their “home base” — the place where one returns regularly, manifests an intent to remain, and can receive messages and be contacted.

In re-Application for Voter Registration of Willie R. Jenkins, D.C. Bd. of Elections and Ethics (June 7, 1984).
In an administrative hearing, the D.C. Board of Elections ruled that an intent to reside in a place can constitute a place of residence for voting purposes. This ruling established the homeless voting policy for Washington, D.C., which allows a voter to name the location where he/she sleeps as a residence even if the place is a nontraditional home.  The voter must also provide a mailing address of a place to which the person has sufficient ties.  The person will vote in the district of his/her place of residence.

Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless v. Tartaglione, No. 84-3447 (E.D.Pa. Sept. 14, 1984).
Ruling on a challenge to Philadelphia’s residency requirements, the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that a homeless voter may satisfy the residency requirements set forth in the Pennsylvania Election Code by “declaring on the Voter Registration Application the address of a shelter with which the applicant has an established relationship, and which will accept first-class non-forwardable mail for the applicant.”  The person must then vote in the district where the shelter is located, even if the person resides in a different precinct.  This ruling provided the basis for Philadelphia’s current policy regarding registration and voting by homeless peoples.

Collier v. Menzel, 221 CalRptr. 110 (Ct. App. 1985).
Three plaintiffs experiencing homelessness challenged the Santa Barbara county clerk’s rejection of their registration applications, in which they had listed a public park as their residence. The court found that the residence was sufficient for registration purposes because the applicants had a fixed habitation in the park and intended to remain there. The court held that denying voter registration because applicants listed a city park as their residence violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The opinion further stated that people who were experiencing homelessness should be encouraged to register and vote in order to provide them with some greatly needed political influence and electoral power. Election officials must now use the specific spot within the park where the persons regularly sleep in order to determine their election district.

Bd. of Election Comm’rs v. Chicago/Gray Area Union of the Homeless, Circ. Ct. of Cook County, Illinois, County Dept., County Div., Miscl. No. 86-24 (1986).
Addressing a challenge to Chicago’s residency requirements for voter registration, the Circuit Court of Cook County held that a person lacking a permanent abode may register by stating under oath that he/she lacks a permanent abode and by presenting two pieces of identification.  The person who is experiencing homelessness must also provide a description of the location where he or she resides that is specific enough that election officials can assign him or her to a voter precinct.  Prior to an election, mail will be sent to the mailing address listed on the registration card and will include a postage prepaid return postcard which must be mailed back to the Board of Elections.

Fischer v. Stout, 741 P.2d 217 (Alaska 1987).
A candidate who lost an election appealed for a recount, alleging that election officials had illegally rejected ballots of voters who claimed to reside at a military base.  The Supreme Court of Alaska held that persons could list a military base generally as their residence, stating that a residence is a fixed place of habitation to which the individual intends to return, and it need not be a house or an apartment, or have mail service.  It need only be a specific locale within the district.  The court acknowledged that a homeless shelter or even a park bench would be sufficient.

Walters v. Weed, 752 P.2d 443 (Cal. 1988).
Individuals whose votes were uncounted in a city council election challenged the rejection of their ballots. These individuals had abandoned their domiciles within the precinct and were thus not considered residents of the precinct, rendering their votes invalid.  However, many of the plaintiffs had not yet met the requirements to establish new domiciles, as they did not live at new locations where they intended to stay.  The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of those voters who had not yet established new domiciles, holding that when a person leaves his or her domicile with no intention of returning to live there, and when that person currently resides in a place in which he or she does not intend to remain, that person may vote in the precinct of his or her former domicile until a new domicile has been acquired. 

Hartman v. Kenyon, 277 Cal.Rptr. 765 (Ct. App. 6 Dist. 1991).
Based on the Walters v. Weed court decision (see above), a citizen contended that individuals who had moved from a precinct could legally vote at their former precinct. The California Supreme Court distinguished Walters, holding that a voter is only entitled to vote at the precinct of his or her former residence if he or she has not moved to a new residence with intent to stay.  In other words, if a voter has moved but has not acquired a new place of residence, he or she is considered to be residing at his or her former residence until acquiring a new place of residence.  Otherwise, he or she must vote in the precinct of his or her new domicile. 

Coalition for the Homeless v. Jensen, 187 A.D.2d 582 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992).
Several homeless plaintiffs challenged New York election officials’ application of a provision of the New York Election Law.  The provision at issue allows election officials to subject “groups likely to include transients” (such as students or people living at a “welfare institution”) to a more extensive inquiry than usual in order to determine whether they are eligible to register to vote.  Based on the provision, the election officials rejected the applications of 240 Camp La Guardia residents and required that they give testimony in court to prove their residence. One hundred and seven of the applicants appeared in court and were accepted as voters, but the trial court rejected the applications of those who did not appear in court.

The Supreme Court, Appellate Division, overturning the trial court’s decision, held that due to time constraints placed on people who were experiencing homelessness, election officials violated the individuals’ constitutional right to vote by failing to take reasonable, good-faith steps to determine the true residency of the individuals who were homeless. All 240 votes were subsequently counted.

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National Coalition for the Homeless
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Washington, DC 20037-1033

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