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People who are homeless must be able to vote

Matt Downie MBE, Director of Policy and External Affairs

MPs are voting this week on Government plans to introduce photo ID requirements for voting in general elections. Most people won’t bat an eyelid at this change in policy, but then most people will never experience homelessness, and never have to worry about having proof of identity or being shut out of our democracy.

The current voter registration system allows people with no fixed abode to participate in elections, allowing registration via an address previously used, that of homelessness services they attend, or even the nearest address to a park bench or shop doorway.

Every time elections come around, Crisis and other charities do our best to promote registration, but the reality is that most don’t or can’t. According to the Cabinet Office, only 2% of people who are homeless are registered to vote, with 48 local authorities having nobody at all who is homeless in their area on the electoral role.

The proposed new Voter ID scheme will present an additional barrier, meaning people will only be able to vote if registered, and then also provide photo ID. The ID must come from a prescribed list, including passport, photo driving license, etc. And for those without ID on the list, they must apply to their local council for a voter card, having completed a process of proving who you are via other means.

People sleeping rough or in other forms of acute homelessness often struggle to access or keep safe their forms of identification, and the costs of application or replacement for a passport and other forms of ID are inconceivable for people who are destitute. Add to this the lack of digital access for the mainly online applications processes, and the obvious barrier of having no proof of address, and you can see why anything that requires proof of ID can be a mountain to climb for people who are homeless.

Government officials are keen to point to the additional protections in the proposed new system that would allow people to be supported in their application for a voter card, should they not have photo ID.  Homelessness charities will be able to ‘attest’ to people being who they say they are, which is of course welcome. However, when I recently met with the Cabinet Office, I explained that those most likely to be unable to register and then show ID are also those most likely to have already been turned away by their council as a ‘non-priority’ case of homelessness. It seems inconceivable that if you are sleeping rough having been told you don’t count as a priority, that you would then go back to the same council asking them to help you be able to vote.

Homelessness strips people of their safety and security, presenting dangers and risks to life. It also chips away at the dignity and self-worth that people need so badly to get back on their feet. We hear this every day from people who feel belittled, othered, and ignored. Being freely and easily able to vote is not the only way people should be treated as equal citizens – scrapping the Vagrancy Act would help, as would treating crimes against people who are homeless much more seriously – but voting is a totemic symbol of equality and it must be actively protected for those least able to do it.

The voter ID proposals have been criticised as an ‘expensive distraction’ amongst those calling for the whole idea to be dropped. If it is not dropped, then at the very least we’d urge the Government to ensure every election period comes with a proactive campaign of outreach to people who are homeless, working with experts in homelessness to find and sign people up. And while they are at it, taking the opportunity to provide housing and support people need too.  

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