With the deadline to register in the March 3 primary election fast approaching, Vernon Price wants to make sure citizens — especially those in under-served populations like the homeless — know their voting rights.
“It’s important for [homeless people] to go out and vote,” Price, an advocate for the local homeless community who himself was homeless for 15 years, says. “It’s essential to produce positive and constructive change. If we want local policy change, we must go out and vote.”
Price says that it’s crucial for homeless voices to be heard at the ballot box, especially if they want to see changes that benefit them. After all, it's local officials like city council members and county supervisors who are responsible for making decisions that affect the homeless community, whether it be allocating funding or approving a sanctioned camping area.
Price says he spent the first eight of his 15 years experiencing homelessness not knowing that he still had the right to vote. He says some homeless people don’t know they have the right to cast a ballot even if they don’t have a permanent place of residence, so they don’t vote.
Any U.S. citizen 18 years or older can register to vote, which includes people living without a fixed address. People don't need a building address to register, Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Kelly Sanders says, just a cross street or perhaps the address of a park. They'll also need a mailing address, Sanders says, but they can use any address at which they have permission to receive mail, like a family member’s house, a shelter, a P.O. box or even general delivery at the post office. Sanders adds that mailing addresses are only used to send vote-by-mail ballots, voter information booklets and voter information cards.
If a voter’s address changed and mail is returned to the elections office, their name will appear as inactive on the voting roster at their polling place on Election Day Sanders says, adding that if their address has indeed changed, they will need to re-register to vote but can vote with a provisional ballot. If their mailing address hasn’t changed, they can vote with a precinct ballot.
Local homeless shelters often provide mail services to clients, including Arcata House Partnership and the Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center, which also helps clients register to vote through the online voter registration.
When you register to vote, you are assigned a polling place (you can also check where your assigned polling place is located here) where you physically go to vote.
But it can be difficult for people without reliable transportation to get to their polling precinct. Sanders says that if people cannot reach their assigned polling place on Election Day, they can go to a different polling location and cast a provisional ballot to vote. The difference between precinct ballots and provisional ballots is that provisional ballots go through extra steps of verification before they are counted. Elections office workers have to verify that voters casting a provisional ballot did not vote in another precinct or vote in any contests they weren't eligible to vote in. For example, if a voter lives in the First District they can only vote for the First District Board of Supervisor candidates. This verification process happens during the 30-day audit after the election.
This year, the state of California has enacted Conditional Voter Registration (also called same-day registration) which acts as a “voter safety net” for California voters who miss the registration deadline, have changed their address or party affiliations. People who use Conditional Voter Registration will receive a conditional ballot that will be verified through the elections office post-election audit.
(If you miss the deadline to register to vote, you can register to vote online or at the Humboldt County Elections office, 2426 Sixth St. in Eureka before March 3.)
However, Sanders stressed the importance of registering to vote before the Feb. 18 deadline.
“Registering to vote before the deadline gives you more options,” she says. “If you wait, you can still register on Election Day but be prepared to wait in long lines.”
Another widely held misconception is that a past felony conviction makes citizens ineligible to vote. In 2018, Price held a voter registration drive specifically focused on educating people with criminal records about their voting rights.
“My voter registration drive focused more so on the misconception and misinformation of voting rights for people with a criminal record,” he says. “A lot of times, people who are homeless have a criminal record and they often think, ‘Because I have a felony, I can’t vote.’ But that’s not the case.”
In California, people who are currently in state or federal prison, currently serving a felony conviction or are on active parole cannot register to vote. However, if someone is in county jail, on probation, on mandatory supervision, post-release community supervision, on federal supervised release or is a person with a juvenile wardship adjudication, they can register and cast a ballot.
People who have served their sentences can restore their right to vote online or at an elections office. (If you’re not sure of your status, you can check here.)
Price emphasizes the importance of voting for all under served groups, especially the homeless.
“We elect these officials for better services, for a better quality of life,” he says. “Everyone needs to take advantage of the opportunity and the right to vote. We can’t complain if we don’t exercise that right.”
The Humboldt County Elections Office, located 2426 Sixth St. in Eureka, will be extending its hours on the Feb. 18 registration deadline. The office will be open from 8 a.m to 6:30 p.m. and during lunch. For those who miss the deadline but would like to vote a conditional ballot, the elections office will be open Saturday, Feb. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well.
This is also the first year that vote-by-mail ballots have prepaid postage stamps, Sanders says, there’s no need to buy any stamps to vote.