Like a record-breaking number of people in the US this year, Maggie, 27, will be mailing in her ballot to vote in the 2020 presidential election. In her case, though, it’s not to protect herself from potential exposure to COVID-19. It’s to protect herself from her abuser.
Maggie (whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity) escaped an abusive relationship in 2018. Since then, she’s blocked her abuser on social media and email, changed her phone number, and moved twice—once out of the state. She even went so far as to make her new address confidential, she tells Health.
But voting in the 2020 election could still put Maggie at risk. Registering to vote in the United States requires that you provide a home address and other identifying information. In Tennessee, where Maggie lives now, most state or local government records—including voter registration—are considered public and available for public review. In fact, there are no restrictions on who can request access to voter registration databases in many states, according to a list compiled by The National Conference on State Legislators. And those public records provide an opportunity for abusers to track down their victims.
Approximately one in four women have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the recent lockdowns caused by COVID-19 have led to a projected global increase in domestic violence).
For women who are able to remove themselves from a domestic violence situation, like Maggie, registering to vote means their ordeal isn’t over. “The most dangerous time for people when they leave a domestic violence situation is right after they leave,” Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), tells Health. “That’s when you’re most likely to see stalking behaviors increase—and the more they increase, the more lethal it can become.”
One in six women have been stalked during their lifetime, reports the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). For many of those women, protecting their personal information is a matter of survival. In Maggie’s case, the violent offense was strangulation—“which put me at an extreme risk of being stalked or worse,” she says. “That’s why I cut off all ties and moved twice.”
Domestic violence survivors have few options when it comes to truly keeping their address private. “If a survivor has found safety and needs to keep their address safe from public view, their only real option is to enter what’s called an address confidentiality program,” says Glenn.
“Address Confidentiality Programs are administered by state governments, and make it so that certain individuals can use a substitute government administered address on public records and keep their actual physical address undisclosed,” Corbin Streett, a technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), tells Health. Protections and eligibility requirements vary from state to state.
These are not witness protection programs; rather, they allow victims of certain crimes to have their mail and public records be redirected to a substitute address, while keeping their actual address undisclosed. ACP programs, as they're known, are not part of a national effort—in fact, there are currently no federally based address confidentiality programs, says Streett.
“There has been a bill circulating through Congress over the past few legislative sessions called the Safe at Home Act, which seeks to make it so that federal agencies are required to accept substitute addresses provided by state confidentiality programs rather than making the person disclose their confidential address,” Streett explains. “This could be incredibly helpful for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking when they have to interact with federal agencies like the Social Security Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department to apply for benefits and identity documents, among other things.”
Maggie uses Tennessee’s Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program. All of her mail goes through a substitute address before being forwarded to her real home, and she’s able to provide the substitute address to all government entities (including when voting) in Tennessee. “It’s highly unlikely that my ex would find me at this point, but it’s a precaution that makes me feel safer,” she says. “I’ll be in this program for life."
ACP programs, however, do not all guarantee that an address will be kept confidential during voting, according to a chart of address confidentiality laws by state compiled by the NNEDV. “The biggest challenges really stem from how so many companies are collecting and selling personal information in ways that aren’t clear to the people whose data is being bought and sold,” explains Streett. “These data collection systems are built in ways that automatically assume the person wants their data collected, shared, or sold, without any obvious indicators to the person whose information is being collected."
Glenn puts it more succinctly: “Unless you’re actually in an FBI Witness Protection Program, nothing is foolproof.”
Voting, then, remains a precarious situation for survivors. Some, like Maggie, feel confident voting under an address confidentiality program. Others, like Jennifer, 19, aren’t sure these organizations can protect them—despite how freaked out she was when she discovered her address on the public voting records a few months ago.
Jennifer (whose name has also been changed to protect her anonymity) was physically and sexually abused by her father, who lost custody after she reported him in 2017. She changed her phone number and SIM card and cut off ties with his side of the family, but “I’ve lived in fear that he’s going to come find me, because he’s not stable,” she tells Health. “We moved, and I was like, he finally doesn’t know where I live, but now I know that he can just look that information up and that makes me really wary.” She’s registered under her home address, but has been recently staying at a separate address with family.
In Michigan, where Jennifer lives, there are no address confidentiality laws. But even if there were, “I’m in a place where I don't trust the law to sort of protect me anymore,” she says. “At this point I'm just going to vote, and what happens after that is something that scares me every day.”
Streett recommends survivors with privacy concerns use the World Privacy Forum’s Data Brokers Opt Out List to help interrupt the sale of their personal information. “It’s also a good idea to run searches of your name, address, phone number, email address etc. to see what information is available online,” she says—but you’ll have to contact each site individually to remove a record, unless you work with a company like Safe Shepherd, she adds.
When it comes to this particular election, weighing your options is crucial to staying safe. “If there’s a victimized survivor who’d really like to vote, and she has any question in her mind about her safety—whether it’s because she’s still connected to the person committing violence or because she’s left and afraid of revealing her location—my best advice would be for her to get in touch with her community-based domestic violence program, which can help her develop a safety plan,” says Glenn. “And that plan may determine that your safety risk is too high. Even though voting is a right, it’s not worth it—we want you alive.”
Moving forward, advocates are pushing for easier ways for survivors to be able to participate in elections that don’t compromise their safety and privacy. “We hope that all states and territories will create protections for those whose privacy is inextricably connected to their safety, so that they are not forced to choose between risking their life and casting their ballot,” says Streett.
Jennifer agrees. “I’m really passionate about more accessible privacy programs. It’s unfair: My abuser gets to vote safely, and I don’t?” she says. “So it's especially important for people like me to have easy access to something that doesn’t add additional stress when we’re already worrying about whether we're going to be safe at night."
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