The Seattle mayoral race has been a whirlwind of buzzwords and campaign stops, of profiles and photo ops. It can be tough to determine which candidates really align with your values. To get an idea of what voters care about — or at least what candidates think that voters care about — just look at the fliers that have appeared in your mailbox.
The top-line issue on most campaign sites and collateral? Homelessness. And yet, few of the candidates appear particularly interested in speaking directly to folks living outside — who are, indeed, constituents.
It’s not as though sheltered folks are models of democracy, either. In King County, most people who can vote are registered to do so. However, the majority of them rarely cast a ballot; in non-presidential election years, turnout typically hovers between 30 and 40 percent.
To register to vote in Washington state, you need only a form of ID (a driver’s license will do) and an address where you can receive mail. This can be a friend’s house, a shelter or even “general delivery” through the post office. Unfortunately, there are often barriers — filling out the paperwork, getting to the post office and translating the ballots can all be challenging.
Organizations have identified these potential hurdles and are on the path toward increased voter involvement. Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness registers voters regularly; in a 2016 blog post, a man named Dennis, who voted for the first time at the age of 63, said that he “felt like I was a part of society.”
Because truly, that’s what’s at the heart of voting, and it’s what’s often in the hearts of people who live outside. There is little that makes a person feel less engaged and less valued than to feel like their opinions and voice don’t matter.
Seattle has also launched a campaign to help unsheltered folks register to vote and get their ballots mailed.
By installing kiosks around the city and partnering with service providers like ROOTS young adult shelter, they’ve been able to improve access and help people understand how critical voting is.
“It’s a simple way to get people who otherwise wouldn’t have their voices heard to allow them to have their voices heard by the city,” said member Katie Means at a recent campaign kickoff. “A city that keeps promising to do things for these people.”
When candidates talk about the “homelessness crisis,” remember that they’re talking about more than a budgetary line item—they’re talking about people, and they’re talking about a crisis of disenfranchisement.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
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