How Domestic Violence Is Also A Form of Voter Suppression

Supermajority Education Fund

September 8, 2020

In the 1990s, during her first marriage, Tawni Maisonneuve stopped registering to vote. After years of emotional abuse from her husband, she says she “didn’t feel as if [she] was even intelligent enough to vote.” Years later, in 2010, Maisonneuve says her new partner physically threatened her safety over political disagreements, and even controlled how she cast her vote. 

“Whenever I would go vote with him, I would need [him to approve my choices], and he would tell the people, ‘Oh, she’s slow, I gotta walk her through it,’” Maisonneuve says. “It was those kinds of humiliating things that I dealt with when I went to go vote, when I was in bad relationships.”

Maisonneuve is among the nearly one in three women in the U.S. who have experienced intimate partner violence. And like many other women, her experiences with domestic violence have impacted her ability to safely and autonomously participate in democracy.

With one of the most critical elections of our time just months away, voter suppression remains rampant in a variety of forms across the country — from voter ID laws to bans on formerly incarcerated people’s voting rights. Just as voter suppression is a critical racial justice issue, it’s also a gender justice issue due to how many American women — and disproportionately women of color — experience sexual and domestic violence, and face greater constraints on their ability to vote because of this violence. 

Political coercion by domestic abusers can range from restricting victims’ access to the internet and social media, which are essential sources for political information and communications, to prohibiting them from attending political events or speaking to canvassers and volunteers, hiding political mailers and ballots, or even directly controlling their partner’s vote, either at a polling site or through mail-in ballots. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which, like nearly all natural disasters, is linked with increased rates of domestic violence, has vastly changed both campaigning and voting this election cycle — and only intensifies the impact of domestic violence on both. For example, as of late July, 51% of Democrats and 20% of Republicans prefer to vote by mail this election cycle, meaning a significant amount of voting will take place at home this year — creating another obstacle for victims of domestic abuse sheltering in place across the country to independently vote.

“The pandemic means we’re all in closer quarters, meaning abusers have more access and control over their victims,” Ruth Glenn, President of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says. “In our democracy, if you can vote, it’s the ultimate form of power. Stripping that away from someone is taking away their power. It’s what abusers have always done.”

As a result of the pandemic, more than 55 million Americans have filed for unemployment, and an estimated 27 million are newly without health insurance. The massive economic fallout of the pandemic means many victims of abuse could be forced to stay with abusers for health care, shelter, and income.

Dr. Tonisha Pinckney knows what it’s like to feel trapped and be denied political agency by an abuser, and also by a lack of resources. Dr. Pinckney, author and criminal justice expert, says her husband would refuse to watch their children if Pinckney wanted to go to a local political event or vote, and convinced her that she didn’t know enough to vote or engage in politics in any way.

“Once I had the kids, it became, ‘Oh, you want to go and hear this political speaker? Sure you can go, but I’m not watching the kids,’” she says, recounting how her ex-husband often used their children to politically control her. According to Dr. Pinckney, having affordable child care and other supports could have helped her be more politically independent.

Dr. Pinckney also believes we can’t address voter suppression and domestic violence without acknowledging the disparate experiences of women of color. “I’m a Black woman, and when you’re a Black woman and dealing with domestic violence, it’s such a difficult situation, because there’s some people who will always treat you like you’re completely stupid and unworthy,” she says.

Women of color and especially Black women experience sexual and domestic violence at disproportionately high rates. Women of color are also more likely to be uninsured and experience poverty and housing insecurity, which could force them to rely on abusive partners for survival — especially during a pandemic and economic crisis.

One reason solutions to the widespread phenomenon of domestic violence-driven voter suppression are sparse is minimal recognition of this problem. It is often rooted in emotional abuse, similar to Maisonneuve and Dr. Pinckney’s experiences, and non-physical abuse continues to be dismissed and trivialized.

“I’ve heard from victims that emotional abuse can be the most impactful, because it can last so long. When you tell someone how worthless they are or they don’t have an opinion, that can disempower them for a long time,” Glenn says. 

Maisonneuve, who has since started the Purple Owl Project which offers resources and support to domestic violence victims and survivors in Ohio, believes another obstacle to supporting domestic violence victims and survivors’ political agency is lack of awareness of the many difficulties they face in general. One example: receiving mail. While nearly all states offer some accommodations for former victims of abuse to protect their addresses and voter registration information from abusers, there is often little awareness of these accommodations, and most states don’t allow victims to have ballots and political mailers sent to P.O. or non-residential addresses. According to Maisonneuve, many shelters for survivors of domestic violence don’t have the capacity to receive mail for people who have stayed there, either. “I’m fortunate that our local shelter will allow me to still send my mail there, for the rest of my life — most people don’t have that option,” she says. 

The connection between domestic violence and political suppression remains shrouded in mystery, as both voting and domestic abuse are inherently private acts. It may be tempting to make partisan assumptions, but it’s clear domestic violence is a problem across the political spectrum. And this election cycle in particular, as the ongoing pandemic has pushed nearly all political activities including voting to our homes, the crisis of rampant domestic abuse undeniably impacts the integrity of our elections.