As Minnesota voters prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 2, voting rights advocates are warning that foreclosure could threaten to keep people from voting.
Officials in Minnesota are working to make sure that homeowners or renters affected by foreclosure know that they can vote on Election Day, even if they've lost their address.
“In all areas where people are facing this trauma we want to make sure they know that they are not at risk of losing their voter registration.”Mark Ritchie, Minn. Sec. of State
Among those leading such efforts is Claire Wilson, voter outreach director for the Minnesota Secretary of State's office. Behind a strip mall storefront in Richfield, Wilson recently walked about a dozen potential voters through their rights. Some of the adults live in group homes.
Wilson told them that if voters who have lived in the state for at least 20 days before the election can prove where they live they cannot be turned away from the polls.
"If you have just moved or if you are experiencing any barriers to your residency, or you just don't have it together to get registered ahead of time, being able to register on Election Day opens up the doors of voting," she said.
Minnesota consistently ranks at the top for voter turnout because of policies like same-day registration. Voters also can vouch for their neighbors who may not have the official identification they need to prove residency. The person vouching signs a legal oath that the voter indeed lives where they say they do.
Advocates say it's true that Minnesota law goes a long way to remove some of the biggest barriers to voting. But they are increasingly concerned that people whose living situations are in flux because of foreclosure might stay away from the polls out of fear of being turned away.
The problem could be especially acute in neighborhoods with high rates of foreclosure, like north Minneapolis, said Brian Siebel, legal director of the Washington-based Fair Elections Legal Network.
"You may not have a utility bill with your name and address on it because you're in temporary housing, you are living with in-laws, the utility bills is in their name, not your name [or] you haven't updated your drivers license," he said. "You haven't got the kind of identification you might need to establish your residency."
A recent report released by Siebel's group found that with more than three million people predicted to lose their homes across the country this year, many voters are likely to let their registration lapse or could be confused about where to vote. The Fair Elections Legal Network is calling on state elections officials to educate voters about voting rules in their state.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has been traveling around the state doing just that.
"In all areas where people are facing this trauma we want to make sure they know that they are not at risk of losing their voter registration just because they've received a foreclosure notice or some part of that process," he said.
Ritchie said the recession has made reaching voters much more difficult than in the past. He said the newly poor may be especially unaware of their rights.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis and nearby suburbs, said the economic downturn also has made it tougher to educate voters about candidates' policies and positions.
"We are going to get out and try and reach people," Ellison said. "But I'm expecting that a lot of people are not going to be where we last knew them to live, which means that we are going to have to redouble our efforts to make sure that we are getting the proper information to people."
Ellison said he'll fight to preserve Minnesota's same day registration and vouching laws to increase voter participation in the future.
Mobilizing these voters could make a big difference this election season, especially in closely contested state races with slim margins.