Homeless New Yorkers and the Right to Vote

Election Day is fast approaching, and this November 4th residents of New York will be faced with some important choices. In addition to the momentous election for President and members of Congress, New Yorkers will be choosing members of the State Legislature and Assembly and – given the current economic recession, the fiscal crunch, and the ongoing crises of homelessness and housing affordability – the decision will have lasting impact on low-income and homeless people statewide.

Homeless New Yorkers will also be going to the polls, in large part thanks to a landmark court ruling that is less than 25 years old.

In 1984 the United States District Court, Southern District, ruled in Pitts v. Black – a lawsuit brought by Coalition for the Homeless on behalf of several homeless people – that local boards of election in New York could not prohibit homeless people from registering to vote.

The Pitts v. Black case challenged the disenfranchisement of homeless New Yorkers. A group of homeless people sued the State and City Boards of Election because homeless people residing in shelters, hotels, or on the street were not permitted to register to vote. Before trial, a consent decree was entered permitting homeless people in shelters to vote. In October 1984, the Federal district court ordered election officials to permit persons living on the streets to register to vote. A two week extension of the time for the homeless to register to vote in the 1984 election was also ordered by the district court.

While this landmark court ruling secured the right to vote for homeless New Yorkers, homeless people in many other states continue to struggle against barriers to voting – the National Coalition for the Homeless has information about homeless voting efforts nationwide.