An ongoing bureaucratic snafu may have led to the questionable and possibly illegal registration of hundreds of homeless voters in Mecklenburg County.
Exactly who is to blame is difficult to sort out, but the end result was that hundreds of people registered to vote at Urban Ministries, the Salvation Army or the Charlotte Rescue Mission, addresses where the homeless can receive mail but can't legally live.
State law requires a voter to provide his or her residential address on registration forms. If the mailing address is different from the residential address, the voter can list both, but he must actually live at the residential address. Because homeless people often don't have permanent addresses, federal elections law allows them to draw a map to where they spend most of their time, which elections officials must accept in lieu of a residential address.
In voter registration drives last year, homeless people who were registered by the local branch of ACORN (a grassroots group that registers low-income people to vote) filled out the forms incorrectly. They listed as their residences mailing addresses of places where they did not actually live. And they did not draw ther requisite maps.
The situation came to light after Republican County Commissioner Bill James filed more than 600 challenges to voter registrations at half a dozen mailing addresses the homeless use. James' theory essentially was that since a handful of ACORN workers had been caught turning in fake registrations in other parts of the country, the group must be doing the same thing here. And James intended to stop the practice.
James added a few derisive comments about the homeless that were guaranteed to grab media attention for his cause, and the whole thing quickly exploded into a debate about whether the homeless should be allowed to vote.
The reality of the situation may not be as sexy as that.
Robert Dawkins, ACORN's local head organizer, readily admits the group did not tell homeless voters that their mailing addresses could not be used as residential addresses. or that they were required to draw maps. That's because ACORN didn't know they were required to do so. Dawkins says he and his group spent a lot of time with Mecklenburg County Board of Elections officials last year, double-checking registrations and making sure his group was registering people correctly. The map-drawing requirement was an issue that "never crossed any of our minds," he said.
"When we were turning them in, that never came up," Dawkins said. "Nobody ever asked us about the homeless situation. We didn't ask them. None of us thought about it."
Because elections officials don't check to see if voter addresses are residences or commercial buildings where people can't legally live, no one apparently caught the error, even though ACORN and elections officials pored over hundreds of the voter registration forms, he said. Dawkins said ACORN's national voter registration training also did not address this issue.
Mecklenburg County Board of Elections Director Michael Dickerson said he doesn't remember if the group ever asked elections officials about how to legally register the homeless, or about the importance of the maps.
"The instructions are pretty explicit on the registration form, aren't they?" Dickerson said.
Well, not exactly.
The voter registration form the state of North Carolina uses doesn't appear to have been designed to accommodate homeless registration.
The form gives voters two options. Section "B" requires voters transferring their registration from elsewhere to list their previous address in another state or county. A blank map of a four-way intersection is crammed in at the bottom of that section with instructions for voters to "use this map to show where you live if you do not have a street number or you have no address." It's not clear if voters are supposed to draw a map of where they live now or where they used to live.
Section "C," which is for new registrations, has no map at all, just spaces for voters to fill in their residential and mailing addresses. The application doesn't mention that new registrants must either give a residential address or fill in the map in the previous section to qualify to vote -- a pretty important point, it would seem.
So how on earth would homeless voters registering for the first time know they were supposed to go back to Section B and draw a map of where they live?
"That's common sense," said State Board of Elections General Counsel Don Wright. "We've had 1.5 million people register and that's never come up."
When asked how hundreds of homeless people in Mecklenburg County had managed to fill the form out wrong if that was "common sense," Wright blamed ACORN for not instructing them to fill in the map.
"If you got a problem with the form, complain to the US Department of Justice," Wright said. "The ACLU, the Justice Department, ACORN -- nobody has complained about this, so if you want to carry this as a crusade, you go ahead."
Wright said local elections officials know that voters without residential addresses should fill in the map, and would have explained that to homeless voters.
But the odds that a homeless voter would show up at the board of elections, volunteer that they were homeless and ask if they had filled out the form correctly are debatable. And voters who mail their registrations in wouldn't come in contact with elections officials at all.
The registration form the state uses is taken from the official form the federal government uses, and it has the same map, Wright pointed out. It's true the federal form is similar, but the way the North Carolina version is ordered is different, which makes what voters are supposed to do less clear.
"It's confusing," said Tulin Ozdeger, the civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "They should indicate that the map could be used for both applying to register and then canceling previous registration. My recommendation would be that the form should be changed so that the map is clearly available in both situations."
She plans to write the local board of elections to suggest other changes to the law that could allow the homeless to use some shelter addresses when they register.
Dawkins agreed that changes are needed.
"We need everything to be as transparent as possible," he said. "If this is something that can be used to keep homeless people from voting, then it needs to be corrected."