With stay-at-home orders forcing victims to shelter with their abusers, and more ballots likely to be mailed, victims of domestic abuse face a new kind of threat.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, systemic inequities are increasingly being exposed. And in addition to jarring inequities in access to health care and economic security, the pandemic is also exposing disparities in who can and can’t safely vote during the most critical election year in recent history.
Voter suppression is often — and importantly — understood as a problem of structural racism, enacted through racialized gerrymandering and varying voter ID and registration laws that disproportionately target Black, Latinx and immigrant communities. But voter suppression has also always been intimately tied to domestic abuse. The pandemic has both exacerbated the risk of domestic abuse with stay-at-home orders, and upended voting protocol as we once knew it. Domestic abuse is almost certain to not only play a greater role in upcoming elections, but also pose an urgent threat to democracy itself.
Ever since early April, when Wisconsin held elections without special accommodations at the height of the pandemic (as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and just about every infectious disease expert), many politicians across party lines have rightfully demanded universal vote-by-mail for the remaining primary elections, as well as the looming presidential election this November.
There’s no denying vote-by-mail is the safest option during a public health crisis as urgent and unprecedented as the one we face. But the daunting reality is that for many, home isn’t a safe place, let alone an environment conducive to political autonomy.
At the height of the pandemic in March and April, law enforcement agencies across the country reported domestic violence cases rose by nearly 35 percent. This rate parallels similar increases in countries around the world, per data shared by the United Nations in March. And all of this is consistent with research that’s shown time and again, incidences of domestic violence increase after natural disasters, as perpetrators often have prolonged access to their families, support services for victims tend to break down, and home life can become increasingly tense and stressful for families.
The phenomenon of domestic abuse impacting victims’ ability to participate in elections and political activities isn’t new. It’s always taken many forms in the shadows, namely through abusive partners blocking victims’ access to political information or even the outside world, and denying them any autonomy through physical or emotional violence.
The internet age has expanded abusers’ abilities to control partners’ electoral behaviors, according to Danielle Root, a voting rights expert with the Center for American Progress. “Today, the internet and social media have become one big way abusive partners can control their victims, since most of us get our information on things like voter registration deadlines, polling locations, campaigns, and more from there,” Root said. Reliance on the internet for electoral processes only increased during stay-at-home orders in most states, all while many abusers control their victims’ access to the internet and social media. Even as many states are beginning to lift restrictions, the majority of Americans are still prioritizing sheltering in place.
Prior to the pandemic, abusers may have stolen vote-by-mail ballots or other voting-related materials in the mail, prohibited their partners from attending local political events or leaving the house to vote, coerced them to vote a certain way or even voted on their victims’ behalf. And according to Root, if a victim is able to flee their abusive relationship, there’s also the problem of abusers using voter registration information to stalk and threaten their victims.
These behaviors have always taken place in the background of elections, impacting electoral outcomes in ways we may never be able to fully grasp. But the pandemic and shelter-in-place guidelines are likely to worsen this problem.
With abusers spending more time at home, this increases their ability to intercept victims’ mail. And because political campaigns have become almost totally digital, if abusers are restricting victims’ internet access, victims may be unable to access any information on elections, candidates, and resources altogether. Without daily routines outside of the house and away from their abusers, such as going to work and other activities, victims may be cut off from any access to political information and interactions, or support and resources.
One of the most concerning aspects of domestic abuse-driven voter suppression is there’s virtually no way to gauge its prevalence and the full breadth of its impact. Every year, more than 12 million people report experiencing domestic abuse. In context, 200 million people are registered voters. But because of the inherently intimate and private nature of both domestic abuse and voting itself, it’s almost impossible to say exactly how many people have had a partner block them from political information or participation, or directly control their vote.
It doesn’t help that political coercion is rarely talked about as a form of domestic abuse, meaning many people could be subjected to this without even recognizing what they’re experiencing is abuse. According to Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in addition to domestic abuse being vastly underreported, those who do report their experiences may omit cases of their partner controlling their access to political information, or their voting and political behaviors.
“That may just be one part of other actions and behaviors they see as more urgent to report,” Glenn said.
Glenn also believes the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color could mean women and girls of color, who experience domestic violence at higher rates than their white counterparts, places them at even greater risk. “The pandemic puts a lot of people in a vulnerable position, and certainly exacerbates things for those experiencing abuse before this, and communities hit hardest by what’s happening,” Glenn said.
Several reports have already detailed how the economic fallout of the crisis could force many victims to remain dependent on their abusers, which Glenn notes could prolong and worsen many cases of domestic abuse nationwide — especially for those who have lost jobs, health care and paid leave recently, who are disproportionately women of color.
Additionally, when pregnant people are unable to reach abortion care for any number of reasons that could include economic barriers and lack of insurance, they’re put at greater risk of experiencing domestic abuse. And several states have recently exploited the pandemic to severely restrict abortion.
For all the many crises stemming from the pandemic, there are few solutions. But there are ways we can support victims of domestic abuse and their ability to safely and autonomously vote. In addition to financially supporting domestic abuse shelters and other groups that provide services and support to victims, it’s imperative that campaigns and local elected officials invest time and resources in reaching shelters, including ensuring victims have access to information about elections, and the means to vote.
In many states, there are also ways victims who escape their abusers can protect themselves and their right to vote, such as registering to vote with temporary addresses to protect from stalking. “Unfortunately, many people don’t know this resource is available to them, and states need to be doing more to educate and inform voters,” Root said. States have different voter confidentiality laws, but over half offer some protections to victims of stalking and domestic violence and offer information about these programs on secretary of states’ websites.
In several essays about political representation and women voters, feminist cultural critic Rebecca Solnit reflects on anecdotes campaign organizers and canvassers have shared with her about wives answering the door, only for their husbands to intervene and send them away. She considers what these controlling behaviors might look like behind closed doors. She questions why in the anecdotes she hears, husbands are nearly always turning away canvassers from Democratic and progressive campaigns, and whether these behaviors may disproportionately benefit political candidates with platforms that hurt women and survivors.
It’s tempting to make assumptions, especially when a number of the most vocal, virulently anti-women politicians—from President Donald Trump, to Mississippi state Rep. Douglas McLeod—have been accused of grotesque acts of sexual violence. But despite how conservative ideologies are inherently about controlling women, abusive behaviors have always transcended party affiliation. Ultimately, because of the vastly limited data on both intimate partner violence and voting, there’s nothing to confirm domestic abuse-driven voter suppression hurts or benefits one political party more than the other.
In other words, the full impact of how domestic abuse affects voters and elections remains a mystery that the pandemic is increasingly shining a light on. As COVID-19 pushes the majority of political and electoral activities to the confines of our homes, the political impacts of our nation’s domestic abuse crisis have become impossible to ignore.
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