As November 3 approaches, the calls for people to vote are reaching a crescendo. There's a clear narrative around the importance of exercising your right to go to the polls, vote by mail, or even volunteer this election. And, with so many swing states in play, individual votes really do count, and the stakes are sky-high: We are fighting for nothing less than the preservation and expansion of the rights of the most marginalized communities in this country.
But blanket calls to “vote at all costs” often overlook important context: Not everyone can vote. There are many reasons, aside from legal ones, that people might be disenfranchised and therefore unable to exercise their right to vote. A major one that isn’t talked about nearly enough is the way that intimate partner violence can impact someone’s ability to vote in elections, both during the relationship and after it ends.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in four women will experience abuse at the hands of a partner, and The Network/La Red estimates that 25-33 percent of LGBTQ+ people will experience abuse by an intimate partner. At its foundation, domestic violence is about power and control: an abuser seeks to establish dominance over someone through tactics of physical, emotional, and/or sexual violence. That can extend into all areas of life, including one place where people can reliably demonstrate their agency: the voting booth.
“Voting is an act of power, which is why abusers often seek to interfere with victims exercising their right to vote,” says Adrienne Lawrence, an attorney and former domestic violence counselor who has also been a repeated election official. In particular, she says, that “women seeking to vote have faced retaliation for nearly a century where husbands objected to [them] exercising their right to vote.”
For someone who is currently in an abusive relationship, there are many complex reasons why they might not be able to vote — or even want to. They could be being actively controlled or monitored by their abuser, or simply disempowered from years of psychological abuse. Tactics used by abusers can include isolation, emotional abuse, gaslighting, and controlling behaviors. The way that can manifest around access to the democratic process can be an abuser withholding relevant information related to election dates or locations by throwing out mail, or berating their partner until they think they aren’t smart enough to vote. It can be not allowing them to leave the house to go vote or stranding them without access to transportation, or coercing them into voting the way their abuser wants them to.
Survivors who exist at multiple axes of oppression can find even more barriers to voting. For example, in communities with large numbers of immigrants, often with limited English proficiency like in the Asian-Pacific Islander community, “trying to get information about when and how to vote or who to vote for is much more easily monitored by an abuser, especially if an abuser speaks English and the survivor does not, and candidates haven't done a good job of doing outreach in multiple languages,” Grace Huang, Director of Policy at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, tells Refinery29.
Tawni Maisonneuve has experienced several of these barriers, telling Supermajority News that she "stopped registering to vote" during her first marriage because the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband made her “feel as if [she wasn’t] even intelligent enough to vote.” Maisonneuve said her partner controlled how she voted by telling poll workers she was “slow” so he needed to help her with her ballot. After leaving their abusers, many survivors may still not feel they have a right to show up to the polls, because the scars of abuse can last long after a relationship has ended.
But there are other, more concrete reasons for survivors not to vote: Many fear for their safety if they register. Registering to vote requires giving your address and personal information, which will then become a public record. If an abuser is someone who surveils, threatens, or stalks their victim after they have left the relationship, they could potentially look up their address in voter registration databases to find them.
“Fun fact: as a DV survivor I cannot register to vote because doing so makes my address public,” wrote Twitter user @IndigenousAI. “Anyone who is fleeing or hiding from an abuser is automatically disenfranchised from the political process and this is a feature, not a bug.”
“Voting is an act of power, which is why abusers often seek to interfere with victims exercising their right to vote.”
— Adrienne Lawrence
In a state that requires someone to show up in person to vote, a survivor could be putting their safety at-risk by going to the polls. “Especially as we are hearing about people standing in line for hours on end, which poses another risk for people separated from their abusers,” says Huang. “We are hearing about counties where there is only one place to drop off ballots or only one polling place. The fact that you're having to stand in line potentially puts people at risk who may be hiding from their abusers.”
Most states have Address Confidentiality Programs that allow survivors of intimate partner violence to keep their home address out of public records (Georgia, Michigan, and Hawaii are exceptions). However, there are a lot of hoops people have to jump through in order to qualify. For example, in New York state, there is a law that allows survivors to obtain a court order in the county where they are registered to vote to have their registration kept separate. This law also allows survivors who fear for their safety to be excused from going in person to their polling place, if they are worried their abuser might be waiting for them there. In order to apply for the exception, however, requires a court order to be acquired and brought to the Board of Elections.
Even more restrictive is the law in New Jersey, which only applies to people who have filed a restraining order and have documented proof of their abuse. There are countless reasons that victims choose not to file restraining orders against or call the police on their abusers, which include fear and threats.
“Some ways in which an abuser may obstruct or influence a victim’s right to vote would meet the definition of voter intimidation under 18 U.S.C. § 594,” says Lawrence. “Unfortunately, voter intimidation is unlikely to be charged because intimidation is often subtle and undocumented. Also, survivors often are reluctant to testify against their abusers, making prosecution even more difficult.”
When people are kept from exercising their right to vote because of fear of discrimination or abuse, it is a form of voter suppression. “The pandemic means we’re all in closer quarters, meaning abusers have more access and control over their victims,” Ruth Glenn, President of the NCADV, told Supermajority News. It has also meant an increase in domestic violence. "Given that domestic violence has increased during COVID-19, Black women face domestic violence at higher rates, and Black women are a strong voting bloc, you would think the candidates would do more to remove the voting barriers a number of Black domestic violence survivors face," said Lawrence.
In order to mitigate some of those barriers to voting for survivors of domestic violence, Lawrence suggests policies that could help improve access, like statewide programs that preserve voter information privacy and remove barriers of entry to such programs; political information websites adding escape buttons to their webpages that enable prospective voters to close out of the webpage immediately and without detection; election official training on spotting voter intimidation and potential domestic violence situations; and voter registration programs at women’s centers and shelters.
What it comes down to is the fact that the system is failing survivors of intimate partner violence, thereby suppressing their ability to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. "When it comes to voting," Lawrence admits, "domestic violence can create a host of hurdles imposed both by an abuser and by the system."