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Economic Insecurity Brought On By COVID-19 Threatens To Disenfranchise Millions Of Voters

Between the global pandemic and a nationwide economic crisis, voting rights advocates see a ‘perfect storm of barriers’ ahead that could prevent millions of people from casting a ballot in November.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Housing insecurity may lead to a drop in voter participation in the 2020 election, experts say, as the pandemic-sparked economic crisis continues to upend life around the country. 

“I think the first thing to remember is that this country doesn’t do a good job under the best of circumstances in ensuring folks that are homeless or have unstable housing can vote,” Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Appeal.

“Folks need to be presuming that there will be glitches and things not going smoothly,” said Pérez. “The problem is that when there are challenges, the folks who are most on margins are the ones who suffer.”

With the general election just nine weeks away, concerns over voter disenfranchisement remain heightened as millions of Americans continue to worry about housing security and a homelessness crisis looms by year’s end. An Aspen Institute analysis published in August warns that 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose housing by the end of the year, referring in part to an estimate from global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross showing over 12 million households have little or no confidence that they can keep paying rent.

A move by President Trump this week to impose a moratorium on evictions across the country through Dec. 31 could forestall—or at least delay—the crisis. But as Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign, based at People’s Action, wrote for The Appeal on Wednesday, the policy is flawed, allowing tenants to accrue debt even with the grace period and offering no protection against landlord retaliation. The moratorium is also sure to be challenged in court. 

“Tenants know better than anyone,” Raghuveer wrote. “Eviction moratoriums were never going to save us, at least not on their own.”

According to Aspen, the COVID-19 pandemic striking in the midst of an affordable housing crisis could be the last straw for many renters already under severe economic strain. Unprecedented unemployment has led to an increase in housing insecurity, the report continued, with 20 million households seeing jobs gone because of COVID-19. All the data taken in aggregate, the report continues, leads to an inescapable conclusion: Millions of Americans are increasingly housing insecure. 

Housing experts The Appeal spoke to said there are many variables, including federal action on another stimulus, that could change the absolute number of people left without housing. Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said landlord behavior is hard to predict in such an economically unstable time and it is possible that the prospect of getting past-due rent could lead lessors to delay or even stop looking to push people out of their housing in parts of the country. However, Roller added, the difference in projections doesn’t mean that tens of millions of Americans aren’t still at risk of losing their homes at the end of the year “without a major federal intervention.” 

Cea Weaver, Housing Justice For All campaign coordinator, suggested the Aspen number might instead be too low. Citing the unpredictability and chaos of the present moment and the difficult decisions between shelter and food that more people in the U.S. are being forced to make, Weaver said the explosion of unhoused people could well exceed 40 million—especially if one includes people who leave their residences before the eviction process begins. “A lot of people don’t want to go through the stress of an eviction,” said Weaver. “So if they’re not paying their rent and the landlord tells them they have to leave, they just leave.”

What isn’t in question is that a sharp surge in home displacement and insecurity will leave families around the country in dire straits and facing a winter on the streets as they attempt to navigate an economy barreling toward—or already in—a full-blown depression. Add to that the stress of a precarious economy and bills and it’s hard to see voting being a high priority for the displaced, said Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread the Vote.

“People are going through chaos and crisis, and during that the last thing that’s going through people’s minds is voting,” Calvin said. “Not because they don’t want to or that they don’t care, but because when you’re trying to stay alive every day and keep your children safe every day, figuring out all the barriers to voting is not something people can prioritize.”

Calvin explained that losing housing raises the chances that someone will lose their identification and supporting documents, paperwork that is essential for a new home and employment. That can lead to a downward spiral for the unhoused that can quickly spin out of control, she said. Even before the pandemic, Calvin added, this was the bleak reality facing many American families around the country. Now, things are even more difficult.

“It’s hard enough when you’re not in the age of COVID,” she said. “And now you’re adding all of that to the mix.”

While people lose their homes and become transient and displaced, voter registration becomes more difficult as the election draws near and people don’t have time or capacity to re-register with temporary addresses or are unable to because of the shutdown or curtailing of hours at state and local agencies. The problem is especially alarming in the Deep South, a region reeling from the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case that disemboweled Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and made it easier for state and local governments to rewrite their voting rules and disenfranchise people of color. 

“The scale of destabilization is hard to imagine,” said Weaver. 

Weaver added that the communities that will bear the brunt of the crisis are largely people of color. Numbers from the Census Bureau’s Week 12 Household Pulse Survey show 32 percent of Black households were behind on rent in July compared to 19 percent of white households in New York state. A Community Service Society New York report released in June noted that communities of color “have little to no confidence in their ability to make their next month’s rent payment.” That’s a sign of how the pandemic is exacerbating existing problems, the report continued. “Within the housing sphere, racist lending and real estate practices, often with support from public policy, have produced an environment where black tenants were experiencing the most acute level of eviction risk before the pandemic, with the threat of eviction-related housing insecurity also extending out to Latinx tenants,” said the report. “The pandemic has also amplified these existing racial disparities.”

A recent survey by the Census Bureau confirmed that those findings track with nationwide reporting: Black and Latinx populations consistently report low confidence in the ability to pay rent during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities in many areas of life, including increasing housing insecurity and risk of evictions,” said Shruti Banerjee, senior policy analyst at Demos. “In an election cycle that is increasingly reliant on voting by mail, meeting the requirement of having an address to register to vote and receive a ballot has impeded access to the ballot box.”

Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told The Appeal that the ramifications of housing insecurity overburden communities of color when it comes to voting rights under normal circumstances. Combine that existing inequality with the pandemic and economic crisis, said Lakin, and you have a recipe for disaster. 

“There are structural inequalities of who is unemployed, and who is evicted,” said Lakin. “In addition to some problems that are structural, we now have the coronavirus.”

Lakin described housing insecurity as one of numerous factors leading to a “perfect storm of barriers put at the foot of voters that we should be thinking about” and noted that voters living on the margins of society—groups that include the unhoused and many people of color—are under particular threat from the economic crisis that has swept the country during the pandemic. 

The challenges lend themselves to a crushingly unfair state of affairs for the displaced, said National Housing Law Project’s Roller. “Just because you make an involuntary move doesn’t mean you should lose your right to vote,” he said.

Solving this problem before it gets out of control will require major action on the part of federal officials, said the Brennan Center’s Pérez, who called for clear protocols and an issuance of guidance from officials to help Americans understand how to exercise their rights. People need to make sure they go to vote early, she added, so as to ensure that if there are problems, they can be dealt with. 

Pérez said that the U.S. elections system is chronically underfunded and has a difficult time facing threats and challenges even under the best of times. During a pandemic, with an important election ahead, that should be frightening, said Pérez. “A lot is only working because until now we’ve gotten lucky and had no crisis,” she said. “Our system is not built for stress.”

Calvin, of Spread the Vote, said she expected a decline in total voter participation to follow what she expects to be a harsh few months of housing insecurity and ongoing economic and public health crises. “The people that will not vote are the ones most affected on every level by elections—those the ones that aren’t going to be able to,” said Calvin. “Realistically a large number of people who would have voted just won’t.”