Beyond the right to vote: homelessness and voting

By Anna Kopec, University of Toronto

It is our vision to have all Victorians actively participating in their democracy. Despite this vision, we know that individuals experiencing homelessness or who are in crisis, have barriers to participation that are greater than any other group. Anna Kopec is a PhD student from the University of Toronto in Canada. She is currently doing field research in Melbourne about political engagement and civic participation of people experiencing homelessness. Anna was invited by the VEC to provide a summary of her research and findings to date – see below.

Image of community worker holding a voting and homelessness poster

Grampians Community Health homeless and family violence support worker Gemma Beavis.
Photo courtesy of Grampians Community Health.

Individuals experiencing homelessness are entitled to the same rights granted to all. If the health of a democracy is measured by its commitment to ensure all citizens can participate, what is the state of democracy in Victoria?

My research examines the factors that affect whether individuals experiencing homelessness exercise their right to vote. I compare Melbourne, Toronto and New York City. My previous research in Toronto found that individuals experiencing homelessness are often unaware of their right to vote. Thus far, my research in Melbourne has found that even with compulsory voting there are misconceptions that exist around whether or not individuals without an address can vote and if they are fined for not voting (they are not). There are efforts to combat such misconceptions in Victoria through initiatives such as mobile voting, programs to educate service providers and consumers about the process of voting, and programs that include those with lived experience. My research has found that electoral access may be greater in Victoria than in Ontario, Canada.

There are other aspects beyond initiatives and programs that need to be considered when thinking about homelessness and voting. Inclusive electoral processes can be counteracted by policies and services that are less so. Policies shape the provision of resources such as housing or financial assistance. They can also shape how individuals see themselves and their place in society. A lack of social housing or financial assistance, can affect what services individuals can access and therefore the information they receive about voting, as well as how they feel about whether or not they should or can vote.

My research thus far has found that there are many ways to include individuals experiencing homelessness into society that might limit such effects. Through elements of consumer participation and peer support in the homelessness sector (and in the electoral sphere through programs like the Democracy Ambassador program), the voice of individuals experiencing homelessness can be heard. As individuals become more included in all aspects of society, their participation will follow.

So, Victorian democracy may need further attention. As for how it compares to Ontario and New York, I’ll let you know!

If you’re interested in participating in my project (as someone experiencing homelessness or with lived experience, a service provider, or policymaker) or would like more information, please email me.