Voter Registration 2013: Complexity in ensuring every voter counts.

Voter Registration ButtonsIf registering to vote or voting itself were as easy and simple as we would like to think it is, then I would not have needed to volunteer on Friday or Monday. It has been over four years since voting rights were restored for people with Washington State felony records so long as they are no longer under Department of Corrections. (Even more, a person with a federal felony conviction or felony conviction in another state never lost their right to vote in Washington.) And still, on Friday and Monday, I stunned a handful of individuals when I told them, “No, you can actually vote! Here’s a pamphlet about it – I’m not lying to you!”

One man, older in age with a youthful spirit and appearance, looked at me with a wide-eyed, winded expression and quietly said, “I’ve never voted, never been able to. I can’t believe this.” We shook hands and smiled, one registered voter to another.

Although voting rights were never revoked for people who are homeless, it takes a lot of extra understanding to know how to register.

Another man, who apologized for smelling ‘wet’ because he had been out in the chilly Seattle rain the past three days, told me that he could not vote because he is homeless. “You absolutely can, no matter your housing status!”  Still surprised by this news, he and I walked through the form, using the 2013 Voter Registration Guide to explain the difference between ‘residential address’ and ‘mailing address,’ and how to fill both of them out when one is homeless. After the form was signed and dated, the gentleman thanked me for walking over to him in the first place. His wheels still turning, he inquired, “Can the Voter ID card help me get a license?” I looked at him, smiled and said, “Yes, it counts as an alternate document.” “Awesome,” he said while nodding his head. I could not agree more.

I am so grateful that I was able to be at the same place at the same time as each of these gentlemen, and the many other individuals who share similar circumstances and (mis)information.

Others updated their registration. Quite a few learned that General Delivery [through the USPS] has limited availability. Many more gave a thumbs-up, indicating they were registered, updated, and ready to vote come November.  A handful of individuals, proud of their vote, pulled out their Voter ID cards as proof! Some even shared their well-informed views on current candidates and policies relating to homelessness. Still, I approached individuals who deeply felt the systemic nature of their disenfranchisement, and had little interest in voting, whether it was available now or in the future:

“They [elected officials] do not really care about me.”
“My one vote is not going to matter.”
“Not one person in those buildings or on that ballot represents me.”

I recommit myself to the work I do each and every time I hear a human being speak their truth, especially when hope feels lost among those who are so deeply affected by the substantial barriers created within our society. We create the world we want to live in with every decision, non-decision, and mis- or under-informed decision. I may be one person but, on Friday and Monday combined, I assisted 24 adults who were invoking their right to vote, many for the very first time. Together, each of us will make a difference on November 5th, 2013 and beyond.

Homeless students have rights, but many of them have no idea what they are

Is there funding for extra-curricular activities under McKinney Vento for homeless students?

This question was asked during the Seattle/King County Coalition’s Annual McKinney-Vento 101 training on August 22nd.  Jess Lewis from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and Katara Jordan from Columbia Legal Services spent 2 hours introducing and explaining the complex issues in McKinney-Vento legislation to close to 100 school staff and housing and homeless service providers.  The McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to immediately register, transport and provide and pay for extra-curricular activities to homeless students.  There are more than 26,000 students in Washington state that qualify for McKinney-Vento services, and school districts must pay for these services whether or not they recieve funding under the law.  Most school districts do not receive this funding.  Washington State has 295 school districts.  Of those, 23 receive McKinney-Vento sub-grants.  If a student wants to participate in extra-curricular activities, the school district is required to address the barrier to full participation.  Often, school districts will look to community service providers, booster clubs, etc. to try and address the specific needs of students.  If other resources cannot be found, the school district is still required to find some way to address the barrier to participation.

Another common question service providers ask and school staff often find confusing is:

What is the distance that schools are required to transport kids to school? 

Many school personnel have been told  that schools will not transport kids out of their county. However, there is no specific distance or commute time mentioned in the McKinney-Vento Act when it comes to school of origin transportation.  So, a student attending school in Everett Public Schools, as an example, and finds shelter with her family in Seattle can continue attending her school in Everett if it is determined by all parties that this is best for the student.  The main consideration is whether or not it is in the student’s best interest to remain in their school of origin.  Because McKinney-Vento is a federal law, school districts often commute with students over county and state lines.  School of origin transportation should not be automatically declined because the student is currently staying in a different county.  The decision should be made on a case-by-case basis and the determination of best interest should be made based on the determination of whether or not it is feasible for the specific student.

For more information about McKinney-Vento and Resources check out these links:

List of McKinney-Vento Liaison’s in all Washington School Districts

National Alliance to End Homelessness