Idaho's Forgotten Voters

Citizens with a disability or without a home make up significant voting blocks


On a recent Wednesday afternoon, only weeks until Election Day, five women sat in a circle of folding tables, contemplating the sample ballots in front of them. They were part of a weekly women's group meeting at The Arc Idaho, a nonprofit agency that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. On this particular day, the group's participants had joined the national conversation about the upcoming election.

An Arc staff member in bright pink sneakers walked among the participants, offering to help read ballots and quizzing the women on where they might go to vote and what paperwork they might need. Another staff member led each woman to a mock polling booth in the hall to let them practice voting.

Enthusiasm was mixed.

"It's my duty to exercise my right to vote," said Sherrie Williams. She voted for Obama in 2012 and is excited to vote in this election.

Sitting across the circle from Williams was Katie Oliver. The process is confusing, she said, adding she didn't like the "garbage and inappropriate talk" from the candidates.

"I try to stay out of it," she said. "I won't vote."

Regardless, staff at The Arc hope to promote a simple message: They can.

According to the American Association of People with Disabilities, there are 35 million eligible voters with some kind of disability this election year—a whopping 17 percent of the electorate. In Boise, groups like The Arc of Idaho and DisAbility Rights Idaho educate those voters on their rights and help make sure their needs are met.

Scott Hoover is a senior advocate for DisAbility Rights Idaho. Hoover works to protect voters with disabilities under the authorization of the federal Protection and Advocacy for Voter Access program. Hoover spends his days meeting with potential voters, reminding them of their rights and talking about accessible voting tools. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Hoover will once again spend Election Day at his desk, taking calls from voters with disabilities and working as quickly as possible to assist them through the voting process. Recently, he stood before a group of 18- to 21-year-olds who attend the Boise School District's Student Transition Education Program for high-school graduates with disabilities.

"We are here to serve you. To make sure the community doesn't walk over you just because you have a disability," said Hoover.

Hoover reminded the soon-to-be-be voters they can ask for help or use special machines that read out the choices. He added that anyone who can't sign their name can mark the ballot with an "X," or even ask for curbside help if they don't want to go into a poll and if they make a mistake, they can ask for a new ballot.

The most important part, he told participants, is that they make their own decisions.

Noel Williams, a 20-year-old in the class, plans to do just that.

"Voting is one of those things that helps us show people that we can do things for ourselves," Williams said. "It helps us have more rights and choose what we want instead of letting other people choose for us."

Voters with intellectual disabilities face added difficulties when it comes to civic engagement and are among a group of Americans often disenfranchised from the voting process.

Another disenfranchised group is homeless voters. Whereas voters with intellectual disabilities can be deprived of a voice if they don't know their rights or aren't presented with the tools to suit their needs, homeless voters can get left out of the elections if they don't have needed documents.

Russell Allen, who is nearly 60, has lived off and on at Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter in Boise for the past three years—a position he found himself in after suffering a stroke.

On Nov. 8, Allen is hoping to cast a ballot for president for the first time since 1988, but said he wasn't sure where to vote or what kind of paperwork he might need.

"Nobody talks about that stuff out here," he said.

Peg Richards, president of the Boise/Ada County Homeless Coalition, agreed.

"I don't think I've ever seen it anywhere. [Voter outreach] to those without a home is a priority," she said. "How do we get these people's voices heard by getting them the opportunity to fill out a ballot? It's definitely a weakness in the system that I can see."

Richards said she thinks Idaho's laws are the primary hurdle in helping the homeless vote. In order to register to vote, Idahoans need a photo identification of some type and proof of residence. Absent a photo I.D., Idahoans may sign an affidavit, swearing to their identity under penalty of perjury.

The easiest way, state officials say, is to acquire a state issued I.D., something many homeless people don't have.

Voters without a state I.D. can still register with alternative paperwork. Phil McGrane, chief deputy at the Ada County Clerk's Office, said that a Costco card or an expired or out-of-state I.D. will work fine when paired with proof of residence—voters living in a shelter can take a letter or receipt verifying the shelter is their address.

City Light Home for Women and Children is one of the only shelters in town where homeless voters are educated about the process. Residents are encouraged to register to vote using the shelter's address. Additionally, caseworkers assist the residents in getting a ride to the polls, said Director of Women and Children's Ministries Julie Jones.

Samira Aaha lived at City Light for three years and has spent the past three living at Interfaith. She's made it a priority to vote.

"People are always shouting, 'I want change,'" Aaha said. "But if you don't go vote, that's self-defeating behavior."

Jodi Peterson, development director at Interfaith, doesn't think many guests share that enthusiasm. Little outreach and strict identification requirements play a role in that disinterest, she said, but she also thinks the homeless have different priorities.

"We serve people who have been homeless for years, so [voting] is not on the radar for them ...they are barely surviving hour by hour," Peterson said. "If we can get them stable and comfortable and supported, we would be able to engage them in a different way."

Michael Kren, a 36-year-old Interfaith resident who became homeless after losing his car and his job, feels disenfranchised in another way: He doesn't think politicians care.

He won't even try to vote until he sees a candidate who is serious about the issues that affect him.

"I've never heard anybody say 'here's the poverty issue and the logistics of what we can do about it,'" Kren said. "What we need is the right wing and the left wing off in those offices to pull up their pants, tighten their belts and say, 'OK, we're going to have a middle class and they don't have to suffer.'"