Why Voter Suppression Is a Woman’s Issue

Supermajority Education Fund

August 21, 2020

The 2020 presidential election is in less than 85 days, and the fight to defeat Donald Trump is inextricable with the fight to combat voter suppression — especially among women. While voter suppression has been an ongoing issue, the situation was made far worse when, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in their decision for the case Shelby County v. Holder. This decision made it easier for states across the country to pass voter suppression laws. Some of those laws, like parts of a voter ID law in Wisconsin, have been struck down. But many, like Florida’s modern-day poll tax for formerly incarcerated people, remain. Here are just some ways voter suppression still persists in the U.S., especially among women. 

Women who change their name have difficulty voting 

As many as 33% of women don’t have the proper documentation they need to get an ID to vote. Many states require original documents proving a name change to obtain an ID, which can be an obstacle for women who’ve married and divorced multiple times or who have moved from the state where the original documentation is held. Since over 90% of women in the United States change their surname when they get married, this places a high burden on many women. 

  This is also problematic for trans people, many of whom change their names after transitioning. In most states, altering a driver’s license requires original documentation of each name change. Fourteen states make it very difficult to change one’s gender on their identification, thus requiring a court order, proof of surgery, or an amended birth certificate. Additionally, poll workers often turn trans people away for their gender presentation not matching their ID. Transgender people also face housing insecurity and incarceration at higher levels than the cis population, both of which can cause voter suppression.

Women are also overrepresented in the group of people making less than $25,000 per year — a group that is more than twice as likely to lack access to documentation proving their citizenship, even if they were born in the U.S., because of name changes, loss of documents, and difficulty accessing replacement documents. Replacement documents can cost money and require a lot of bureaucratic red tape. This can be prohibitive for many low income people.

Intimate Partner Violence Can Cause Obstacles to Voting

While people of all genders can experience intimate partner violence, 85% are women, and the risk is even higher for trans women. Many women in abusive relationships have trouble accessing the needed documents to register to vote because their abusers might hide their documentation, or victims might be forced to leave these documents behind when they leave their partners. 

Marie* told Supermajority News that when she recently left her abusive partner, they held onto her and her children’s birth certificates, social security cards, and other official documentation. Without these forms of documentation, she has no way to register to vote in many states.

Caucuses are also difficult for people in abusive relationships to participate in. Sam,* who is from Nebraska — a caucusing state — told Supermajority News that when she was experiencing domestic violence, she couldn’t caucus because her abuser would know she was voting differently than him. “I couldn’t caucus, and because I couldn’t caucus I couldn’t vote,” she said. “I only realized after I was out of the [domestic violence] situation for 10 years that my vote was suppressed and I was denied another one of my rights until he nearly killed me, and I was free.” Privacy for victims of intimate partner violence is an additional concern this year as more and more people are voting by mail in their homes as a response to COVID.

Even when victims escape their abusers, they often need to worry about keeping their address private for years after. When Kate* left her abusive ex-boyfriend after he attempted to murder her, she told Supermajority News, California law protected her bank accounts and personal information, but it wasn’t until her abuser ended up in jail that she felt safe to register to vote and, in doing so, making her address public. 

Some states have Address Confidentiality Programs that allow domestic violence survivors to keep their residencies private. However, those programs, which are not widely publicized or always sufficient in protecting survivors’ information, also don’t always seamlessly extend to voter registration. For example, any participants in New York’s Address Confidentiality Program have to separately contact the Board of Elections for assistance in voting without disclosing their address. There are also eight states with no program at all to specifically protect domestic violence survivors’ privacy when they register to vote. 

Unfortunately, even with the protection of this program, individual counties can be unwilling to work with participants. According to the director of Public Information at the New York State Board of Elections, some survivors even have to obtain a court order to have their voter registration records not be made available for inspection or copying by the public. Additionally, these procedures only help survivors who have restraining orders or some official record of their abuse because such a record is required for entering an address confidentiality program.

Incarceration and Voting

Women are the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people, and in many states, people lose their right to vote when convicted of a felony either just while incarcerated or, in some cases, permanently. People awaiting trial in jail usually retain their right to vote but are disenfranchised because their jail doesn’t provide them voting materials. As of October 2019, 60% of incarcerated women are currently being held in jail awaiting trial — a disproportionate amount compared to men, likely because women are less likely than men to be able to afford bail — meaning while many can still technically vote, they are dependent upon the jail in which they are being held to provide them the ability to do so.

Long Lines and Short Polling Place Hours

Across race, immigration status, and education level, women are more likely to work in the lowest-paid jobs than men; Women make up 69% of the workers in the lowest-paid hourly occupations. These jobs make it harder for women to take time off work to get to the polling place, or to vote during normal work hours. Women also remain the majority of primary caregivers for their families, and without access to childcare, it can be logistically difficult as well as expensive for caregivers to wait in long lines to vote.

All of these obstacles are compounded for women of color, disabled women (only 27% of polling places are fully ADA compliant), low-income women, and gender non-conforming people. While there is a lot of evidence that women face extra barriers to vote across income, race, education, and immigrant status, there isn’t enough analysis on exactly how many votes are suppressed because of these barriers. More research and analysis must be done on this topic, but in the meantime, anybody can call their state government officials and urge them to repeal voter ID laws and expand Address Confidentiality Programs in their states. People can also support organizations like Spread The Vote which helps people get IDs, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition which is working to help formerly incarcerated people pay their fees, and National Bail Out which raises money to help people get out on bail and particularly focuses on Black women with their #FreeBlackMamas campaign. If we work together, we can make the 2020 Presidential Election have the highest turnout of women yet, 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment.