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The Invisible Voter Suppression of Domestic Violence

Emotional abuse, stalking and sexual assault have a direct impact on democracy. But we never hear (or talk) about it — because it doesn’t look like the violence we know

It was a cold, foggy July night in Daly City, California, when 39-year-old engineer Susanna Cox decided she couldn’t take it anymore — she had to eat something. But to do that, she had to turn on her phone. 

She’d been keeping it off at home for months now, an attempt to keep her two tech-savvy abusers from using it to locate her. They’d developed a habit of tracking her location and harassing her with visits from law enforcement; in three separate incidents since January, officers had banged on the door of whatever hiding place she’d found — called to action by some false report of suicidality or child endangerment — and demand she come out. Cox, who is Native American, feared they were trying to have her executed — if they were to bust down her door, she was sure they’d start shooting whether it was justified or not. But since they never had a warrant, she never opened the door. 

Shivering on the floor of the sparse, undecorated apartment she’d been hiding out in for weeks, she took a deep breath and powered her phone on, the mouthwatering promise of sushi temporarily lifting the heaviness of the risk she was taking. She brought up a food delivery app and ordered some for her kids — ages 9 and 11 — too deliriously hungry to realize that’s exactly the moment her abusers had been waiting for. 

The next morning, she awoke to the familiar sound of booming knocks ricocheting throughout the apartment — they’d hacked her phone and cinched her location. “It was absolutely terrifying,” she says. Every time seemed more so than the last. Months later, Cox — who goes by an assumed name online, works remotely and bounces between vacation rentals to throw them off her trail — posted something to Twitter about her situation: 

The tweet — which quickly went viral — seemed to strike a chord not just with domestic violence victims, but with everyone who wasn’t aware that voter addresses can be public domain. “The response people had to it was really horrifying,” Cox tells me. “People were shocked to learn that their addresses were public. They’re endangered, but they had no idea.” 

Nor were most of them aware of a reality she and many other victims have to face when they’re hiding from someone who’s hunting them down: They can’t give out their addresses to public agencies. That means that without some sort of protection, they can’t rent a house, they can’t apply for a credit card and, as Cox stressed in her tweet, they definitely can’t register to vote. 

“There’s a term for that, you know,” she says. “‘Voter suppression.’”

Typically, voter suppression is thought of as structural racism, ageism and xenophobia that manifests in unjust practices like gerrymandering and prohibitively strict voter ID and registration laws. These practices unfairly target Black, Latinx and immigrant communities, and their effects can be dire; as the ACLU reports, voter suppression tactics can sway the vote by 2 to 3 percent, leading to tens of thousands of lost votes in a single state. 

But while voter suppression is largely — and crucially — a problem of racism, it’s also the direct result of interpersonal crime. Things like domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and human trafficking can influence voter behavior, and though they might not seem like typical political tactics, experts say they play a huge role not only in individual elections, but in the very workings of democracy itself. We just don’t hear about it because it doesn’t look like abuse. 

“When most people think of domestic violence, they think of injuries caused by physical violence — the black eye or the bruises,” says David Mandel, executive director of the Safe & Together Institute, an international training and consulting organization focused on domestic violence and systems change. “But while physical harm from violence is very serious, the non-physical control perpetrators exercise over their victims’ functioning is huge and often overlooked, especially when it comes to voting.” 

Mandel says it’s common for perpetrators to limit a partner’s access to information about voting, control whether they can leave the house to vote and pressure them to vote for certain candidates. Likewise, law professor and director of the University of California, Irvine’s Domestic Violence Clinic Jane Stoever says abusers may prevent their victims from joining political clubs and events, monitor their activity online and on social media, steal their mail-in ballots and impede their access to the electoral process both digitally and physically. (One client of hers was kept locked in her home with a double-barrel deadbolt and denied access to electronics and information about the outside world.)

So far, the pandemic — which has forced millions of people inside with their abusers and made it exceedingly difficult to escape them — has only exacerbated these problems. During peak quarantine in March and April, domestic violence cases rose by roughly 35 percent, and in the period between April and July, calls to anti-stalking organizations like Paladin in the U.K. jumped 50 to 70 percent. Both of these things correlate with the well-known association between abuse and natural disasters; the more people are forced inside, the more prolonged access perpetrators have to their victims, and the less they can rely on their support systems for help. More concerningly, the unequal impact of the pandemic on communities of color could mean that women and girls of color — who experience domestic violence at higher rates — could be at even greater risk.

Because this particular kind of abuse tends to only happen during election cycles and is largely invisible to the outside world, it’s rarely discussed or acknowledged, even in domestic violence circles. As Stoever points out, voting interference isn’t present on intake screening forms for domestic violence shelters, it’s usually not on standard safety planning guides and it’s almost never explicitly mentioned on the websites of domestic violence hotlines and organizations. As such, she says, there’s really no way to know how common voter suppression through interpersonal abuse is, during the pandemic or otherwise — after all, no one’s collecting the data. 

But we can still wager an educated guess. Let’s start with the fact that an estimated 200 million people are registered to vote in the U.S. Between 6 to 7.5 million Americans are stalked each year, and 12 million more experience domestic abuse. Though many of these cases overlap and not all of them describe survivors struggling with voter registration, that’s still millions of people who may be putting themselves at risk when they register to vote. According to attorney and cyberstalking expert Alexis Moore, even the most conservative estimate would likely find that there are at least several hundred thousand votes that go uncast due to interpersonal violence each year (but again, that’s just a guess). 

The impact of this could be huge, especially in places like Ohio and Nevada where domestic violence rates are relatively high, political margins are thin and a few thousand votes could mean the difference between red and blue. 

All of this raises an important question: Why are voter addresses even public in the first place? If making them easily accessible poses such a risk to vulnerable groups — and those groups may not vote because of it — why not wrap it up in at least a couple layers of bureaucratic bubble wrap before giving it away to any clipboard-carrying registration volunteer who asks? 

Well, you know those desperate-sounding texts from dying dialysis patients and disenfranchised ride-share drivers begging you to vote “yes” or “no” on Prop XYZ? That’s why — as University of California, Irvine political science professor and voting law expert Rick Hasen explains. The only real reason voter addresses are public record is “get out the vote” efforts, or so “campaigns can contact voters with information and persuasion.” But, even if you’re not part of a political campaign that spams voter mailboxes with glossy mailers, addresses are still often accessible to members of the general public. 

Some states are far more restrictive about this than others. In California, voter addresses are kept confidential, except for “election, scholarly, journalistic, political or governmental purposes.” Tons of other states have similar regulations — Utah and Alabama, for example — but others — like Alaska, Arkansas and Florida — make voter addresses available to anyone and everyone who asks. In most cases, states charge a small access fee to get it, but that’s a minor inconvenience for someone with half a brain and a bone to pick; if they’re determined, they can find your address. 

Right now, the only recourse for safe voting is to apply for something called an address confidentiality program, or ACP for short. These state-sponsored programs allow survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking and certain types of harassment to receive mail at a safe address — usually the Secretary of State’s or a post office box — all while keeping their real address confidential. This protects them from offenders who might use public records for driver’s licenses, marriages and voter registration to find them. As of today, 39 states have ACPs. 

Washington’s, enacted in 1991, was the first of its kind. It’s also one of the most encompassing: In 2011, it expanded to include criminal justice employees who were harassed for their line of work. A handful of other states have also expanded their participant eligibility requirements to include not just victims of abuse, but employees working in certain fields, as well. In California, reproductive health-care workers qualify for address protection, as do local and public health officials who’ve been harassed “in connection with their contributions to protecting public health against COVID-19.” Every state has different rules for who can apply. 

In Washington, roughly 4,500 people are enrolled in the state’s ACP. Each time a new person signs on, they’re informed about their options for becoming what’s called a Protected Records Voter, a delegation communications director Kylee Zabel tells me comes with the “highest level of address protection available for voter registration records.” In that case, she says, their name, residence, county and precinct number aren’t publicly disclosable.

As of today, there are 1,089 protected records voters on Washington’s registries, but since the state’s ACP doesn’t track how many of them actually vote, there’s no real way to tell if they’re using their protections. Nevertheless, ACPs have made a huge impact in the lives of people like Sara, an anonymous 28-year-old child abuse survivor in Minnesota. Speaking to The Lily about how her state’s ACP gave her the chance to vote while hiding from her abusive mom, she said she was “so excited to finally have some freedom,” and that she didn’t feel as scared to vote anymore. “It’s been very good for my mental health,” she said. 

ACPs are far from a perfect solution, though. According to Stoever, they’re not well-advertised to the general public and some states require applicants to apply in person, which isn’t an easy option in a pandemic or when they feel they’re being closely watched. Likewise, she says confidential voter registration can also be established through a court order, but voters who fear for their safety “may not be aware of this court-based remedy or may face challenges when navigating the court system.” 

Address confidentiality isn’t a particularly high-security venture, either. That’s why Cox patently refuses to use ACPs; as a machine learning engineer with a security background, she’s entirely unconvinced they have strong enough cybersecurity to keep victims’ records protected. She’s also certain that both of her abusers — who she describes as “very wealthy STEM professors” (one PhD engineer and one ex-Google engineer) — would have no problem cracking the code to get to her if given the chance. So while she sees the inherent benefit in ACPs and believes they’re useful for other people, they’re not something she’d bet on for her particular threat model.

Moore agrees. “Data breaches are becoming the norm today,” she says. “The credit bureaus, banks and credit card companies would be the first to say they’re not 100 percent secure, so it’s totally reasonable that the county registrar and other government agencies wouldn’t be, either.” 

The cybersecurity of voter records isn’t just an idle concern. In 2010, Moore says she worked on a stalking case involving a peace officer’s ex, who was located using public records databases despite her enrollment in an ACP. Once he found her, he “tormented her day after day” until she finally “cashed out” by disappearing entirely. “She’s now living with a new name and identity without contact with her family and past friends,” says Moore. “This is the sad reality for some victims: They literally have to leave it all behind and go dark in order to prevent their murder.” With that in mind, she says, it’s pretty understandable that a victim might be hesitant to register or cast a vote.

Stoever’s best recommendation in this situation is improved coordination between get-out-the-vote volunteers, ACPs and victim advocacy groups, all of whom could do a much better job of advertising safe voting options to the general public. “Voter registration materials need to advertise a confidential option, and volunteers with clipboards need to be educated to relay that information to potential registrants,” she says. “If the [voter registration] form doesn’t indicate that there’s a confidential option available for those who face danger, then people who are fearful about listing their address may be entirely deterred from registering to vote.”

For anyone who’s already been affected by abuse, stalking or harassment, the loss of that small bit of electoral power might feel like a whole other layer of disempowerment. Not for Cox, though; as a Cherokee descendent who’s felt passed over and taken advantage of for much of her life, she’d rather not participate in a “colonial electoral system” anyway. That said, she’d consider it in one highly unlikely condition: if voting were decoupled from home addresses. “In my mind, there’s absolutely no reason you should need a person’s home address to register,” she says. “Requiring that is the same thing as ridiculous voter ID laws that require certain forms of ID to vote — it’s just another hurdle they know certain groups can’t get over, and they use that to their advantage.” Moreover, she adds, if campaigns want to market to voters so badly, why not just use more updated, anonymous forms of communication like email instead?

So far, address decoupling is a change no one’s tried to push through, but until that time comes, Cox is hopeful that bringing awareness to the issue can help people keep themselves safe. And safe is what she’s finally feeling, at least for now. “I’m very, very lucky,” she says. “There’s an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, and 86 percent of us are victims of violence. The fact that I’m alive just reflects that I had friends that would help me. It’s a stroke of luck that I happen to be kind of good at this.”