Juana Cecilia and her family contemplated eviction from the Nashville mobile home park they lived in for over a decade after a developer bought the property and gave residents a short timeline to move. (Photo by John Partipilo.)
Tennessee habitually ranks as one of the lowest states in the nation for voter turnout, with fewer than 60% of the state’s voting-eligible population casting a ballot in the 2020 presidential election.
And while the General Assembly hasn’t passed as many restrictions on voting rights as other Southern states, voting in Tennessee has limits. A bill in 2021 to allow student IDs to be acceptable forms of identification to vote failed, and the state still bars felons from regaining the right to vote after they’ve completed their sentences.
What’s rarely talked about, and what could be a factor heading into the 2022 midterm elections, is the role evictions play in voting patterns.
Job loss as businesses shuttered during the COVID pandemic contributed to higher eviction rates. Those evictions created another bureaucratic problem for those wanting to exercise their civic rights.
“Any systemic pattern of displacement that causes a disruption of residency has a possibility of disenfranchising voters and denying voters free and fair access to the voting booth,” said Sekou Franklin, a professor of civil rights policy and politics at Middle Tennessee State University who is active with the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP.
Evictions: A semi-permanent record
According to Experian, one of three major credit reporting agencies, an eviction stays on public records for at least seven years, affecting a renter’s credit scores and ability to find housing.
Landlords can also refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers for low-income tenants.
“I don’t know if we could cite an exact number, but there are definitely many, many people in Nashville who are stuck living in hotels, in their cars, and on people’s couches while struggling to find housing in Nashville,” said Jack Marr, spokesperson for the renters-rights organization Red Door Collective.
Any systemic pattern of displacement that causes a disruption of residency has a possibility of disenfranchising voters and denying voters free and fair access to the voting booth.
– Sekou Franklin, professor, Middle Tennessee State University
In these situations, houseless people sometimes lack legal documentation because “their lives have been upended and all of their belongings moved, thrown away, or generally messed with,” said Marr.
At Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach organization, caseworkers struggle to help homeless people apply for new identification. There’s a form people can fill out to verify their homelessness, and sometimes caseworkers can vouch that individuals are residents of Tennessee. But county offices of Tennessee’s Department of Motor Vehicles aren’t always cooperative, and most require both an address and secondary proof of residency, such as a bill.
“The systems are not set up to work for a lot of folks, especially those experiencing homelessness,” said India Pungachar, Open Table’s advocacy and outreach specialist.
According to Open Table, there are currently 20,000 people in Tennessee experiencing homelessness, including 8,000 children.
Registering to vote after eviction
Without identification and a permanent address, evictees may find it hard to vote.
After an eviction or change of address, people have 90 days to vote while still registered at their previous residence, according to the Shelby County Election Commission.
And after applying for a new voter registration card, the card may be sent to the voter’s previous address before the government registers that the individual no longer lives there, according to Cindy Ettingoff, executive officer at the Memphis-Area Legal Services
“Of course, if an individual has been evicted they will not be present to receive and respond to the notice of voter registration cancellation,” she said.
Sometimes, a utility bill has been accepted as proof of address to register at a new address..
“The real problem is that, in order to vote, one must have an address. Without a new address being available and the registration completed in a timely fashion, one could miss the opportunity to vote,” said Ettingoff.
How evictions depress voter turnout
The last major wave of evictions prior to the pandemic came in the 2008 recession, and activists worked to make sure voters who had lost their homes had access to voting stations, said Franklin.
In a community, be it large apartment complexes or neighborhoods, residents talk to one another, form social hubs and eventually discuss what’s needed for the community to thrive. Organizers working to increase voter turnout visit these neighborhoods, register them to vote and compile data on voting patterns in the area. Politicians campaigning can target these neighborhoods, and after receiving voting information in the mail, residents can make an informed decision about voting.
Once the conversations get going and neighbors encourage each other to vote, voter turnout increases as the neighborhood is socially pressured to act in the interest of their community.
In communities with high eviction rates, voting patterns are disrupted as those social hubs are lost. Political engagement may diminish after political candidates are no longer able to interact with potential voters. And without those connections, the community may be unable to leverage politicians to represent their interests.
Nearby social hubs are affected as well, such as churches, community centers and schools.
“These churches are disappearing. Literally they’re closing down,” said Franklin.
People getting evicted are not in a position to mobilize – to vote – and the stress is overwhelming, he adds.
“And if your residential status is in purgatory, as to where you will end up, how do you piece together your voter precinct,” he said.
According to the Eviction Lab, low-income women, especially women of color, have higher risks of evictions, as do domestic violence victims.
A study on evictions and voter turnout by Princeton University showed that potential voters were affected by three categories. Facing eviction, potential voters were more likely to strain their resources and de-prioritize political participation. Areas and tenants disrupted by eviction are then socially isolated, dampening their political engagement. And after getting evicted, potential voters were more likely to be cynical of the government and discouraged from political action.
In some areas, high eviction rates can be enough to disrupt local elections.
Eviction Lab estimates that Memphis has had 34,778 evictions since March 15, 2020.
Franklin said that the politicians elected after such eviction waves are a product of voter disenfranchisement.
Some low-income tenants could be forced out of the county and away from friends and family in search of affordable housing. In a new voting jurisdiction, they will need to reregister and learn how to integrate themselves into a new political environment.
For those unable to find housing with an eviction on their record, homelessness case workers look for shelters to take them in but encounter barriers.
Some shelters have specific requirements to allow people in. Some don’t accept children or will seek to separate single fathers from children, and others don’t accept multigenerational families. Some shelters may refuse pets, and caseworkers have been told people with severe medical conditions were being denied because “they were too much of a liability for the shelter to adequately care for that person,” said Pungachar.
And of the shelters that exist, many have hit capacity.
“Honestly since the pandemic started, every time we try calling to get someone into a domestic violence shelter, either in Nashville or communities surrounding Nashville, there haven’t been any available shelter beds,” she said.
Some people have been left with no choice but to live in homeless encampments, and a new law seeks to charge people sleeping on public property with felonies.
“All this to say that we don’t want police threatening felony charges and forcing people to keep moving when there’s really no alternative option for people while they wait for housing,” said Pungachar.
But it’s not impossible to vote if one is homeless. The Tennessee Secretary of State requires a physical address in order to assign a voter to the correct precinct, but that can even be a shelter address or even the description of a street corner at which a person in homelessness regularly rests.
“It’s really disheartening that the system is set up to make it really difficult, if not impossible for folks to vote and elect people that can actually have the people in mind,” she added. Tennessee’s voter registration deadline is July 5 for the August 4 primary and Oct. 11 for the November general election.
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