by Cheryl Berenson RN, MS, MPH
As a public health nurse practitioner and volunteer disaster responder, I work with people from all walks of life. My patients are largely in crisis: many are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, drug addiction, physical and mental illnesses, and other emergency conditions.
They, like I, care deeply about how we are governed. They, like all of us, worry about climate change, war, and the economy. But many of my patients must also face challenges that threaten their safety on a daily basis. They, like all of us, deserve a voice in government. But far too often, our voting system is out of reach for them. Washington State must do more to involve our struggling neighbors in politics. This process starts by changing the rules that make voting inaccessible to many eligible citizens.
The freedom to vote is a fundamental right guaranteed to all eligible Americans. It is the foundation of a true democracy. Voting is a great leveler– it puts all of us in the same boat and says to each American, “Your voice matters. You are important. You have a part in the process.”
Washington State has a richness of diversity and experience that enables us to be more creative in finding innovative solutions to our voting access hurdles. In our state, that has meant implementing mail-in ballots, a system that works well for a majority, but for someone experiencing homelessness, it can be difficult to obtain your ballot without an address.
If you cannot afford the price of a stamp, you have to submit your ballot at a drop box. For residents of some neighborhoods in our state, the closest ballot drop box may be out of reach due to lack of bus fare or a reliable mode of transportation. Depending on a friend or family member to drop it off for you may not be an option either. These are real, significant barriers that stand in the way of voting for many Washingtonians.
Washington also lacks a key piece of voting accessibility policy: Automatic Voter Registration (AVR). Already passed in ten states, AVR allows eligible voters to register or update an existing registration when interacting with a government agency– at the DMV or signing up for food stamps, for example. With AVR, voter rolls are kept clean, secure, and accurate.
In Oregon, 375,000 eligible new voters were added to their rolls in under a year and a half with AVR. A recent study showed that Oregon’s registered voters have become more representative of the state’s population, with more millennials, low-income people, people of color, and rural voters registered.
Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) would be a great help to Washingtonians in crisis. By pairing the registration process with other key activities, it’s more likely that disenfranchised groups will gain access to the democratic process. With larger numbers of these groups registered, there would be more of a mandate to provide education and information around voting and politics to them.
In my conversations with my patients, I listen to their stories. I am a privileged, educated white woman and lucky enough to have led a comfortable life. Our communities and government often respond swiftly to resolve problems faced by people like me. It is easy to believe that the largest challenges of our time are ones that feel relatively distant.
But, every day, I am reminded of the heartbreaking challenges that are much, much closer to home here in our city and region. When I provide care for my patients, I understand that their challenges are mine as well. We all belong to the same community; if they are suffering, it is clear we all have failed to care for one another.
Most of my patients have experienced serious trauma; they need to know that they are part of a larger community. They need to feel cared for and engaged, and that they have a voice that counts. When those of us with more privilege discuss our unhoused neighbors, we usually talk about stable housing and access to health care, but rarely about voting rights. If we are to make real headway with ending homelessness in Seattle, we need to stop seeing those in crisis as apart from ourselves.
We need to do everything we can to bring them into the conversation, to create empathy and a path forward. That begins with working together to protect and expand voting rights and access for all eligible Americans, regardless of circumstance. Only then will we have a government that is truly by and for the people.
Photo courtesy of King County.gov