During my senior year of college, I worked as a courtroom advocate at the St. Louis County Domestic Violence Court, a division of the court system that deals exclusively with orders of protection in cases of domestic violence. I worked with petitioners to create or improve their safety plan (i.e. what strategies did they use to keep themselves as safe as possible from their abuser?) and to connect people to resources available in our community, like counseling programs, employment assistance, shelters and transitional housing, and legal services. Throughout my year at the court, I watched hundreds of petitioners share evidence of their abuse before the judge, who asked the same, simple question every time: “Does your abuser’s behavior make you fear for your safety?”
Many of the petitioners I worked with shared that a large part of what made them feel unsafe is that their abusers knew where they were. A common tactic abusers use to gain power and control over their partners is to know where they go and when: home, work, school, a child’s school, a friend or family member’s place. As part of their safety plan, many survivors I met lived in hiding from their abuser, whether by changing their schedule, by transferring branches at a job, or by moving to a new home—all substantial undertakings that can uproot a person’s life, if they are at all able to make these changes, and which highlight the many ways in which domestic violence can have long term and diverse effects on a person’s life.
As if moving to hide from an abuser weren’t difficult enough, it is not so easy to keep that address a tightly sealed secret. Enrolling children in school, setting up utility bills, filing a court petition and registering to vote all require submitting an address on forms that ultimately become part of the public record, quite easily accessible to anyone who cares to look. For survivors of domestic violence, having their address on record can undo careful, complex plans to stay safe by keeping that information private from their abuser, who do care to look. Some states provide alternate options for survivors, offering voter confidentiality programs that allow individuals to use a substitute address in order to help maintain their safety. But such provisions are not the norm. In the 22 states in which anyone can access voter registration records, survivors of abuse are faced with choice of potentially compromising their safety or not registering to vote. If safety is the utmost concern—and it makes sense that it is—survivors are left disenfranchised.
Jewish values teach us that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a)—and that means everybody in the community. We know that obstacles to voting exist in many forms, from active voter suppression like voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement policies, to failure to ensure that all those who can legally register feel safe realizing that right. Requiring survivors of domestic violence to compromise their safety in order to exercise a fundamental right hinders our democracy.