With no residential address, homeless voters in Georgia face removal from the rolls

The volunteer-run mailroom at First Presbyterian Church in Midtown is one of a few places in Atlanta where people who are homeless can receive mail. Many also have used the church address to register to vote. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

On a recent weekday afternoon, more than 20 people filed into a line at a reception window on the bottom floor of Midtown Atlanta’s First Presbyterian Church. The crowd kept the five volunteers inside the small office busy checking IDs and searching for mail in the filing cabinets stacked along the back wall.

This is the church’s mailroom, one of the few places in Atlanta where people without an address can receive important documents, like state IDs, birth certificates or letters from their family and friends.

It’s also where hundreds of people who are homeless have been registered to vote. 

King Lyles, who relies on the church for medical supplies and other mail, is among those who use its address for voting. In fact, he received his precinct card at the church just a few weeks ago. 

But he’s heard there could be an issue with his registration this year. 

“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “Like, you see my precinct card but I don’t know if that necessarily means I’m registered to vote.”

Voting rights advocates say unhoused voters such as Lyles could have their registrations challenged under Senate Bill 189, which went into effect this month.

A new Georgia law opens the door for challenges to voters registered at “nonresidential” addresses. That could affect unhoused voters who have registered using the mailroom at First Presbyterian Church. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The law is the latest measure from Republican state lawmakers to bolster scrutiny of the voter rolls since the 2020 election when Biden won by just under 12,000 votes. It outlines guidelines for voter challenges — a process through which regular citizens can challenge other voters’ eligibility.

The law says that if a challenger finds a voter is registered to a “nonresidential” address, that would be sufficient for election officials to uphold the challenge. 

According to the ACLU of Georgia’s voting rights staff attorney Caitlin May, this section of the law makes unhoused voters uniquely vulnerable. She said it would disqualify many of the places, like First Presbyterian Church, where homeless people currently register. 

“There’s no exception carved out for people, for example, registered at a homeless shelter or somewhere else that they can receive mail or where they actually are sleeping at night,” she said.

Ultimately, a challenge could kick these voters off the rolls. 

“All we’re trying to do, all the legislators are trying to do, is to really enforce the law that already existed.”

Garland Favorito, co-founder – VoterGA

Andrew Garber, a voting rights and election counsel at the Brennan Center, said a nonresidential address is not a legitimate reason to remove voters. 

He says it is important for voters to provide an address they can access so election officials can find them and determine where they should vote. However, requiring that address to be residential is like requiring voters to own or rent a home. 

“That would raise a number of concerns for me, including that people with lower income or people who have faced health or mental health issues, being categorically excluded from voting,” the counsel said.

As soon as First Presbyterian opens its mailroom on a recent weekday afternoon, more than 20 people file into a line at the reception window. It takes five volunteers to check their IDs and find their mail. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Those who support the law argue all this concern is overblown.

Garland Favorito, co-founder of VoterGA, said a residential address is just an indicator that someone is actually a resident in Georgia — which is required to vote.

“All we’re trying to do, all the legislators are trying to do, is to really enforce the law that already existed,” said Favorito, who previously filed suit against Fulton County over the 2020 election, aiming to uncover fraud.

Favorito acknowledges there may be exceptions — instances where voters may live at a business, for example — and said election officials can handle them. But, in general, the law is another step toward ensuring more accurate voter registrations.

He also states that many of these unhoused voters’ registrations are not following the rules. That’s because several locations where many are registered, like First Presbyterian, mainly provide mail, not shelter. 

“Does the homeless person reside there permanently?” he asked., “If so, maybe that’s a valid address. But in most of these cases, they don’t have beds.”

But the state code has never accounted for most unhoused people’s living situations. 

“It’s people who are unhoused and they need a home base to receive their mail.”

Tricia Passuth, director of Community Ministries at First Presbyterian

Some states, like New Hampshire and Colorado, specifically allow homeless voters to use shelters or even nonprofits as their voting address. 

Georgia’s code does not provide specific guidance. It only describes a voter’s residence as “that place in which such person’s habitation is fixed.” 

When asked what that means for homeless voters, different government agencies offer different guidance. According to the Secretary of State’s office, unhoused voters should list the address where they sleep.

However, that would change frequently for many — even those who find a spot at a homeless shelter may only be there for a few months. Meanwhile, Fulton County’s website directs these voters to register their address as the county courthouse, which would also be “nonresidential.” 

The new law, SB 189, does specifically reference homeless voters — but not for their voting address. It only says that they should receive their election mail at the county registrar’s office, which, in Fulton County, is located in Fairburn. That part of the law also doesn’t go into effect until January 2025.

First Presbyterian’s director of community ministries, Tricia Passuth, said the people they serve use the church’s mail service because they are facing a transient moment in their lives, not to try and cheat the system.

“In fact, it’s people who are unhoused, and they need a home base to receive their mail,” she said. 

Advocates like Passuth worry this attention on nonresidential addresses will only discourage more unhoused voters from participating. 

At the moment, there are only three main places that provide mail and documents to the homeless in Atlanta. In 2020, a few thousand residents were registered at one of these addresses. Despite this, only less than 200 of them voted in the presidential election that year, according to data obtained by NPR and analyzed by WABE.

Georgia’s code does not say what homeless voters should put as their registered address. It only describes a voter’s residence as “that place in which such person’s habitation is fixed.” (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Although Lyles was among those who voted then, he hasn’t decided whether he will vote this year. He knows that he doesn’t want to face issues at the polls. 

If his voter registration is successfully challenged, election officials are supposed to notify him before the election — although the law states this is only “if practical.” To resolve the challenge, he may have to contact the board of elections with additional information or attend a hearing. 

With living costs on the minds of many voters, including those with homes, Lyles said he should have the right to give his input if he chooses to do so.

“One of the first and major things I’m working on is housing,” he said. “So my opinion shouldn’t be eliminated, for lack of a better word, because of that.”