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How the COVID-19 housing crisis could affect voter participation

Where do you register to vote if you just got evicted?

How the COVID-19 housing crisis could affect voter participation
[Image: rikirennes/iStock]
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With temporary eviction moratoriums timing out and rent relief programs falling short of the need, tens of millions of Americans are facing a future of housing instability. The threat of being evicted or the stress of having to move doesn’t only affect someone’s health—it could also affect how likely they are to vote in an upcoming election.

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. was facing a severe housing crisis. Now, with tens of millions of Americans out of work and struggling to pay rent, experts anticipate an “avalanche” of evictions, and for the number of people who are rent-burdened to skyrocket. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), we need $100 billion in rental assistance to keep low-income Americans stably housed. (This is the amount earmarked in the HEROES Act, but it’s yet to be passed in the Senate.)

“COVID-19 is already disrupting our elections in profound ways,” Brian Miller, executive director of Nonprofit VOTE, which works to promote civic participation, says in an email. Millions of voter registrations are not being collected or updated, because DMVs are closed and voter contact programs are on hold amid the pandemic, he notes. “This is worsened by the waves of COVID-related displacement, from college students leaving their closed universities to the forced evictions amid the economic fallout.”

Miller says that if you are displaced from your home, you should make sure to register to vote at your new address. Continued social distancing may mean the office you usually visit to update your voter information is closed, but you can still register online, and nonprofits, businesses, universities, and other institutions can organize voter registration efforts. Nonprofit VOTE is working with nonprofits on the front lines of this economic crisis—including food pantries, community health centers, and housing organizations—to help make sure that the people they serve are registered and ready to vote by November. Voter registration deadlines vary by state; the furthest out is 30 days from an election, while about 21 states and the District of Columbia allow residents to do same-day voter registration.

Keeping as many people as possible stably housed is also key for democracy. “There’s certainly a connection between our homes and our voting behaviors,” says Joey Lindstrom, director of field organizing with NLIHC. Though there’s not currently hard data on how an eviction impacts someone’s likelihood to vote, he says data does show a disparity in voter participation between low-income and high-income residents, and between renters and homeowners. In 2016, 74% of people with incomes over $100,000 voted in the national election while only 38% of those with incomes below $20,000 voted. The split was similar when looking at homeownership: 67% of homeowners voted versus 49% of renters.

But even more importantly, what impacts someone’s civic engagement in general—whether going to a PTA meeting or volunteering in your neighborhood or voting in an election—isn’t necessarily whether they’re a homeowner or a renter, Lindstrom says. It’s whether they’ve been in one place for an extended period of time, and whether they have the time and ability to prioritize voting.

“Dealing with an immediate crisis puts everything on the back burner,” he says. “I think voting is really important to renters. I think voting is really important to low-income people. But when the primary issue of your day is how are you going to feed your kids or how are you going to find a place to sleep at night, the policy concerns of a federal election fade to the background, for very understandable reasons.”

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This idea of being too overwhelmed to vote is true even for homeowners when they are financially stressed. A recent Purdue University study touched on how unemployment could hamper voter turnout by looking at the 2008 recession. Researcher Ben McCartney, an expert in household finance and voter participation, found that a 10% decline in home prices decreased the participation rate of the average homeowner by 1.6%—equal to about 800,000 potential votes over the 2010 and 2012 national elections. The threat of foreclosure and financial stresses were more pressing than, for example, the need to find their polling place. This year, potential voters struggling due to pandemic-related layoffs may be more concerned about their current financial situation than with voting, which could affect turnout.

NLIHC is working to increase low-income voter participation through its Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 campaign, as well. The coalition has run the campaign, which focuses on registering and educating low-income renters and affordable housing advocates around voting, for years, Lindstrom says, but this year the effort has been expanded as more Americans face financial struggles and as election rules change often amid the pandemic. The campaign stresses the fact that without low-income and renter participation, low-income housing interests won’t be represented in policy decisions.

Housing interests may be especially important during a local election, but as we get closer to the national election in November, it’s still crucial that renters vote. “We feel the reason that affordable rental housing is so often ignored by policymakers, when they choose to instead support home ownership and mortgages [is] because policy makers don’t recognize renters, as much, as a reliable source of votes,” he says. The Our Homes, Our Votes site is still being updated as states make decisions about early voting and absentee ballots; Lindstrom says they aim to have all that information, including how to register to vote if you don’t have an address and how to vote by mail, for each state by the end of August.

NLIHC also hopes to expand its work in encouraging communities to require landlords to provide voter registration documents when someone moves in to their unit, since they’re already establishing proof of age, residence, and citizenship with their lease paperwork. Minneapolis and St. Paul did pass such ordinances in 2016, but in March of this year a judge overturned them, ruling that it violated landlords’ First Amendment rights. When Madison, Wisconsin, put in place such a requirement in 2012, local landlord organizations strongly opposed it and refused to comply, saying it’s “not appropriate” for them “to be doing the work of the alders and the political parties.” To Lindstrom, this clearly shows the political power renters could have. “It doesn’t take much analysis of that to realize that landlords understand what happens when renters vote,” he says.