In Portland, and everywhere in Maine, you don't need a home to vote
Nov. 1—Rick Lamere pulled his state ID, a piece of mail and his green voter registration card from the front pocket of his pullover and handed them to the clerk at Portland City Hall.
The handover had been weeks in the making, and with the Tuesday general election coming up, Lamere's step was a timely one. But in the end, the transaction took just a moment.
"You're all set," the clerk said. "Your polling place is the Merrill rehearsal hall, which is right on Myrtle Street. OK?"
"Thank you," he said, nodding in satisfaction.
Lamere, 31, lives in a tent in Portland. He wanted to vote on Nov. 8 but was not sure how to do that until he went to his first meeting of a nonprofit group, Homeless Voices for Justice. The organization has been around for over 25 years and advocates for people who are homeless or poor in Maine.
During election season, that work includes hosting candidate forums and helping people who do not have a fixed address register to vote.
Any resident who is a U.S. citizen and who will be at least 18 years old on the day of the general election can register to vote in Maine. That includes people who have felony criminal convictions, who are barred from voting in every other state except Vermont.
Maine law expressly allows citizens to vote even if they have what the law defines as a "nontraditional residence, including, but not limited to a shelter, park or underpass."
"I think it's extraordinarily important that every citizen of Maine, including people who are unhoused, have the right to vote," Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows told the Press Herald. "The people we elect make decisions of enormous importance for people who have difficulty accessing housing. Their voices matter equally with everyone else's."
Maine's voter registration card requires your address and your government ID number — either your driver's license number, state ID number or the last four digits of your Social Security number. You also need to provide documents that prove your identity and residency, such as a license, a utility bill or paycheck.
But getting a state ID or providing a lease document can be complicated or impossible if you do not have a fixed address. So social service agencies like Preble Street often allow people who are homeless to use the agencies' addresses for mail, IDs and voter registration. You can also provide a direct statement under oath of your intention to live in a particular place.
"People who are unhoused are not going to have a lease or a property tax bill, but they may have other pieces of information that indicate their nontraditional residence," said Bellows.
Bellows emphasized that Maine elections are secure, and that people cannot register or cast ballots in multiple locations. Historically, that sort of error has rarely happened.
'YOUR LIFE IS AFFECTED'
Jim Devine has been an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice for 22 years. He and other members brought voter registration cards to parks, shelters and apartment buildings this fall as part of the "You Don't Need a Home to Vote" campaign.
"I say your life is affected by the decisions that politicians make," said Devine. "Having a say and becoming aware of who could work on your behalf and voting for the person who will work on your behalf is in your interest."
Homeless Voices for Justice is an independent grassroots organization, but part of Taylor Cray's job as the advocacy outreach team leader at Preble Street is to support the work of the group. She estimated that it has helped roughly 45 people register to vote this year. She said that work can be challenging because many people who are homeless do not feel like their vote matters or do not trust political systems to help them.
"When you're voting with your community in mind, just remember that your community includes the people who are living on the street," she said. "Not every person who is unhoused is going to make it to the polls, but if you can, vote for the people who can't."
The window for returning a voter registration card by mail or through a third party has passed for the upcoming election, but Maine residents can still register in person up to and on Tuesday in order to cast a ballot. So Lamere made the trip to Portland City Hall last week with Cray and another Preble Street staffer.
He gets his mail at the Spurwink Living Room Crisis Center in Portland, and he used that address on his ID. The card had arrived in the mail a couple days prior, and after he showed it to the clerk, he carefully tucked it back into his jacket pocket.
Registration complete, Lamere could turn his attention to the election itself.
"I don't know anything about the candidates other than what I heard at the forum the other day," he said to Cray. "And I also need to figure out which district it is."
"You'll vote for council at-large," explained Cray.
Lamere had met two of the three candidates for that seat a few days earlier when incumbent Pious Ali and challenger Aqeel Mohialdeen attended a Homeless Voices for Justice candidate forum at Preble Street. Richard Ward, who is also running for that seat, was not present.
The organization also hosted forums this year for candidates in Portland's District 3 (where the city is building a new homeless services center) and local legislative races. The questions for the at-large candidates included whether they believe people have the right to shelter and whether government funding should go to homeless shelters.
Lamere stood up to ask whether the candidates would change a city policy saying staff will not require the removal of campsites when emergency shelters are at capacity.
Later, Lamere said he asked that question because he usually sleeps in his tent in an undisclosed location because the shelters are unpredictable and don't have secure storage for his gear. But trying to figure out where to go every night adds another layer of stress to his situation.
He said he would prefer for Portland to take a more lenient approach and perhaps even designate an area for campsites. He is also concerned that more people will lose their housing in the coming months as pandemic-related housing assistance runs out and the cold settles in.
"There are about to be a lot more homeless people," he said. "It's not enough for the city to just tolerate people camping. They actually need to embrace the fact that it's happening.
"Obviously, they don't want people to be camping in general. They do want people to be housed. But it's not a realistic expectation at this point, regardless of whether or not that's what we want."