Center for American Progress

Obstacles to Voting for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence

Obstacles to Voting for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence

Each election, survivors of intimate partner violence face unique barriers that can prevent them from voting.

A poll station official holds
A poll station official holds "I Voted" stickers at a Denmark, South Carolina, polling precinct on February 20, 2016. (Getty/Mark Makela)

On November 6, Americans will head to the polls to cast a vote in one of the most important elections in a generation. Each election year, Americans hear stories concerning various tactics used to suppress the votes of American citizens—particularly communities of color—such as strict voter ID requirements, poll closures, reduced voting hours, and voter purges.1 Discussed less frequently, however, are the unique barriers to voting experienced by survivors of intimate partner violence.2 According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, “the #1Thing you can do to address domestic and sexual violence is commit to voting.”3 Unfortunately, survivors of intimate partner violence may be unable to make their voices heard in November due to barriers in the voting process, including fear of potential retaliation, privacy concerns, and lack of important election information.

Studies on domestic violence’s impact on voting trends are sparse, and more research is needed to fully explore the ramifications of intimate partner violence in this area. This is due, at least in part, to the inherent difficulties of studying domestic violence generally, let alone in a specific context such as voting and elections.4 As described by Isabel Ruiz‐Pérez, Juncal Plazaola‐Castaño, and Carmen Vives‐Cases, who research domestic violence as a public health problem, “Obtaining reliable data on this type of violence is a complex task, because of the methodological issues derived from the very nature of the phenomenon, such as the private, intimate context in which this violence often takes place, which means the problem cannot be directly observed.”5 However, a number of survivors have spoken publicly about how election processes, such as voter registration, deter them from participating in elections.6 And according to a study by the United Nations, “The extent of election related domestic violence in all its forms, including physical violence, is currently undocumented but believed to be substantial.”7

This brief explores some of the unique obstacles to voting experienced by survivors of intimate partner violence, including isolation from important election information and materials; intimidation and violence for asserting their voting preferences; and privacy concerns related to voter registration. In addition, the brief highlights recommendations for helping to ensure that survivors of intimate partner violence can make their voices heard in the democratic process without fear of violence or retribution on the part of an abuser.

Since the 2016 election, the United States has experienced a reckoning over the unrelenting violence taking place in halls of power, in corporate boardrooms, and at private gatherings within private spaces. Survivors of violence—be it intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or harassment—have bravely told their stories and called for an end to the brutality and dehumanization experienced by millions of Americans each year. Violence and harassment are not new problems in the United States; but it is high time that American lawmakers start listening and acting on the concerns and demands of survivors. As described by Ferial Nijem, a domestic violence survivor, “When I was in an abusive relationship, I was told all the time that my voice didn’t matter. But it does. My voice matters. That’s why I vote.”8 Ensuring that survivors have access to the electoral process and feel empowered to participate safely and make their voices heard makes democracy stronger and betters the lives of all Americans.

Barriers in the voting process for individuals experiencing intimate partner violence

Intimate partner violence affects millions of Americans every day. Each year, 10 million people—men and women alike—experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner.9 In their lifetimes, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will face some form of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse by an intimate partner. Domestic violence and sexual assault cannot be separated: Of those in physically abusive relationships, 45 percent of females and 29 percent of males experience forced sex by an intimate partner.10 Some demographic groups are more likely to experience intimate partner violence than others. For example, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, and Americans with disabilities are especially likely to experience intimate partner violence.11 Forty-four percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner.12 Gay and bisexual men are significantly more likely than heterosexual men to experience partner-on-partner violence, while 30 to 50 percent of transgender people experience intimate partner violence.13 Among black women, 41 percent have experienced physical intimate partner violence.14 Lastly, between 2011 and 2015, people with disabilities were more than 3 times more likely to experience sexual violence than people without disabilities.15

Each survivor’s story is different. Abusers can assert power and control over survivors using myriad tactics, including intimidation; physical, psychological, and economic abuse; and by threatening one’s children.16 During election years, intimate partner violence may materialize in unique ways and be exacerbated. The act of voting is itself a demonstration of power and something an abuser may seek to stifle or influence through violence or intimidation. This is particularly true in intimate partner relationships that adhere to strict patriarchal standards, where a wife or female partner’s desire to vote for different candidates or policies than her male partner may be seen as a rebellion against patriarchal norms and a challenge to an individual’s maleness.17

Below are some of the ways by which survivors of intimate partner violence may be dissuaded or prevented from participating in elections.

Isolation from election information and voting materials

One of the most common tactics domestic abusers use against survivors is isolating them from family, friends, and community members. Isolation makes it less likely for survivors to report abuse and can negatively affect their self-esteem, making them more reliant on the abuser for basic needs and support.18 Isolation can be physical, psychological, or economical.19 Additionally, abusers will often restrict or monitor a survivor’s access to the outside world via the telephone or internet—particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.20

Isolation is particularly problematic for individuals experiencing intimate partner violence who want to vote. Because they are isolated, would-be voters may be prevented from receiving and gathering critical information about elections, voter registration deadlines, early voting periods, and candidates. For example, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 14 percent of Americans found social media platforms to be the most helpful resource for gathering information about the 2016 election.21 Restrictions on internet access and prohibitions against leaving the home unsupervised may also prevent eligible voters from attending community voter registration drives; applying for and receiving absentee ballots; or voting in person at a local polling place.22 Unregistered potential voters are less likely to be contacted by campaigns and integrated voter engagement groups—both of which rely on voter registration lists to conduct outreach and help voters make informed choices on Election Day.23 And when it comes to voting, information is power. One study found that during the 2000 elections, participation was 2.5 percent higher in states that mailed information about polling places to voters in advance and 2 percentage points higher in states that mailed sample ballots.24

Therefore, by isolating their victims, abusers are able to exercise political control over survivors of intimate partner violence, preventing them from obtaining the information and materials necessary to make their voices heard.

Intimidation and threats of violence for voting or asserting voter preference

Domestic abusers may threaten to restrict access to children, cut off financial support, or intimidate survivors with physical or sexual abuse if they vote or do not vote a specific way.25 Examples of this type of retaliation date back to shortly after women achieved the right to vote. A University of Chicago study examining why voters failed to participate in a 1923 election found that some women cited “objections of husband” as a reason for not voting, with one woman saying “I am not looking for a divorce.26 Threat of divorce may be particularly problematic for individuals who rely on their spouse financially or for child-rearing purposes.

Polling places are typically set up to ensure voter privacy by either seating voters far away from one another or through the assistance of dividers or curtains.27 However, even with the assistance of certain privacy assurances, a threat to one’s safety or well-being may be enough to intimidate someone experiencing intimate partner violence into voting a certain way.28 And for survivors who vote absentee and thus complete their ballots at home, voter privacy may be more difficult to guarantee, as abusers may have greater ability to access and monitor a survivor’s vote selection.

Election canvassing also presents a unique potential threat to those experiencing intimate partner violence. Canvassers working for political campaigns typically target individuals who are registered party members as well as those who voted in previous elections for door-knocking activities and outreach.29 The scripts canvassers use to contact potential voters can be very general. They often simply ask whether the individual is registered and plans to vote on Election Day, which gives survivors plausible deniability.30 On the other hand, if a canvasser identifies a survivor as a registered member of a party who voted in the last election and the abuser overhears or discovers the survivor’s political activism, the survivor may suffer consequences.31

Privacy and other problems related to voter registration

People experiencing or who have experienced intimate partner violence may have significant privacy concerns related to the voter registration process, which often occurs at departments of motor vehicles (DMVs).32 According to Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, “there are less than six degrees of separation between most abusers and a friend or relative who works for the DMV.”33 Voter registration databases can be particularly worrisome for individuals targeted by stalkers. Of women who are stalked, two-thirds are stalked by an intimate partner.34

Individuals must supply their addresses and other identifying information when registering to vote.35 Although some states prohibit voter registration lists to be shared publicly, other states make them publicly available or permit voter registration rolls and voter information to be purchased by individuals and organizations.36 Voter registration lists are useful tools for get-out-the-vote (GOTV) activities by campaigns and civic organizations wanting to get in touch with potential voters.37 However, voter registration information can be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands, as abusers can use it to locate and contact their survivors. According to one survivor, “Domestic violence victims can have their safety jeopardized if their location is made public, because it allows offenders to easily find them. All the steps I had painfully taken to protect my safety could be jeopardized by one vote.”38 Election Day registration (EDR), whereby eligible Americans can register to vote and cast a ballot on Election Day, poses its own unique set of challenges for survivors of intimate partner violence.39 For example, to utilize EDR, survivors may sign, along with their voter registration form, a written request attesting that they fear for their safety and wish to be excluded and/or removed from state voter registration lists; yet because they are never officially added to or are removed from state voter rolls, they must re-register to vote every election.40 Considering the labyrinth-like voter registration process in many states, this creates yet another hurdle survivors must overcome to make their voices heard.41


Survivors of intimate partner violence must be able to make their voices heard in elections. To do this, they need access to election information and materials, along with the ability to register to vote and vote safely in person at polling places or other designated voting locations.

Below are two recommendations for improving voting access for survivors of intimate partner violence:

Expand access to voting with pro-voter reforms and offer address confidentiality programs

Jurisdictions can improve voting access for survivors of intimate partner violence by adopting commonsense pro-voter policies, including early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day and Election Day voter registration. Polling places should also be conveniently located across a jurisdiction so that survivors do not have to travel far distances to cast a ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 34 states currently have early voting, while only 17 states offer EDR.42 At least 12 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration.43 By adopting these reforms, lawmakers can provide voting-eligible survivors with more opportunities to register to vote and cast a ballot in elections.

Any voter registration program must be coupled with address confidentiality programs (ACPs) and confidential voter listings policies in order to ensure survivor information remains safe and secure from abusers. At least 39 states offer ACPs and confidential voter listings that allow survivors of domestic violence to keep their address secret by using a designated—or alternate—address or P.O. box for all matters of public record, including voter registration.44 Washington’s ACP program, for example, is currently utilized by approximately 4,500 people in the state.45 The designated address differs from the survivor’s real address to ensure stalkers and perpetrators of domestic violence cannot locate or make contact with the survivor at his or her home. States may also offer special protections for survivors who vote in person—such as presenting special voter ID cards with unique identification serial numbers—when they sign in at a local polling place.46 This helps to prevent survivors from having to use their real names, since an individual’s polling location could give information about a survivor’s place of residence. However, some victims have raised questions over ACP programs’ effectiveness in keeping information safe.47 For example, information confidentiality programs cannot work effectively if survivors and survivor advocates are not aware of them. In 2014, Amy Miller, the executive director of Violence Free Colorado, said of Colorado’s confidentiality program, “I’ve never been told that it was an option when I’ve registered to vote in this state.” A Colorado county clerk echoed this critique: “It’s great that they have it but not publicizing it doesn’t help anyone.”48 Officials should work closely with domestic violence advocates when developing and updating confidentiality programs in order to ensure they adequately protect survivors.

Improve information about elections for survivors and provide safety education to election officials

For voters, information pertaining to voting and elections is crucial. However, as discussed, survivors may lack access to critical election-related information because they have been isolated by their abuser—or due to other reasons such as involuntary restrictions on internet and social media access. Survivors must be able to safely access information about how and where to vote, as well as resources on candidates and ballot measures. To help survivors receive this access, state and local election websites—as well as campaigns and political parties—can add “escape site” buttons to their webpages. These buttons provide survivors with the option to quickly leave a webpage and keep their election activity private if an abuser enters the room or looks over their shoulder.49 The buttons typically direct users to a different website, such as Google, that is less obvious than closing the window browser altogether. They also provide survivors with a reminder that they are visiting a sensitive website, helping those whose web history is being monitored by their abuser.50 Intimate partner violence advocacy groups around the country are also making efforts to ensure that survivors receive the information they need to make informed choices and vote. For example, in October 2018, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence initiated a GOTV campaign to “specifically provide information for survivors to vote safely through California’s Safe at Home Program” while encouraging candidates to contact local domestic violence shelters to talk directly to survivors about the issues.51

Finally, jurisdictions should consider providing survivor-focused trainings for election officials, including training on how to identify signs of domestic abuse. This would help election officials to respond appropriately and with extra discretion when survivors come to the polls or seek out election-related resources.


During election season, it is important to remember the unique obstacles survivors face in the voter registration and voting process. This is particularly true during the lead-up to an election in which so much is at stake. Indeed, people experiencing intimate partner violence are among those who stand the most to lose in the election. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, which provides important funding and prosecutorial protections for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, is under constant threat of being defunded or repealed. For example, although VAWA was included in September’s congressional spending bill, it was granted only temporary reauthorization with an expiration date of December 7, 2018.52 At the same time, lawmakers continue grappling with the role that emerging technology plays in intimate partner violence, including “revenge porn”53 and software that allows abusers to stalk survivors using cellphones and other electronic devices.54 The United States needs leaders who are determined to foster safe environments and are poised to fight for the rights and well-being of all survivors, so that Americans can live and work without fear.

Democracy works best when all eligible Americans are empowered to and able to vote. The recent U.S. Supreme Court nomination process for Justice Brett Kavanaugh offered a powerful reminder of survivors’ sheer determination and resilience, as well as the importance of having their voices included in the democratic process.55 Survivors deserve a democracy that works for them and must have opportunities to contribute to elections without endangering their own lives or the lives of loved ones. The future of the country depends on it.

Danielle Root is the voting rights manager for Democracy and Government at the Center for American Progress.


  1. Morgan Gstalter, “107,000 purged from Georgia voter rolls for not voting in past elections: report,” The Hill, October 19, 2018, available at; Victor Blackwell, Devon M. Sayers, and Pamela Kirkland, “Elections board takes less than a minute to reject proposal to close 7 of 9 polling places in majority-black county,” CNN, August 24, 2018, available at; Cheyenne Haslett and Roey Hadar, “North Dakota Native Americans fight to protect their right to vote after court ruling,” ABC News, October 21, 2018, available at; Danielle Root and Connor Maxwell, “Conservative Lawmakers Are Suppressing Voters—Here’s What You Can Do to Fight Back,” Center for American Progress, October 26, 2018, available at
  2. See, generally, Julie Ballington, Gabrielle Bardall, and Gabriella Borovsky, “Preventing Violence Against Women in Elections: A Programming Guide” (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2017), available at
  3. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, “Voter Engagement and Participation: An Important Role for Advocates,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  4. See, generally, Isabel Ruiz‐Pérez, Juncal Plazaola‐Castaño, and Carmen Vives‐Cases, “Methodological issues in the study of violence against women,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61 (2) (2007): ii26–ii31, available at
  5. Ibid.
  6. Amy Rolph, “Voting can be dangerous for domestic violence survivors in Washington state,” KUOW, October 9, 2018, available at
  7. Ballington, Bardall, and Borovsky, “Preventing Violence Against Women in Elections.”
  8. California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, “Domestic Violence Awareness Month 2018: VOTE!”, available at (last accessed October 2018).
  9. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Statistics,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  10. Ibid.; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Intersection of Intimate Partner Violence and HIV in Women” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), available at (last accessed October 2018).
  11. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Domestic Violence & People with Disabilities,” available at (last accessed October 2018); Matthew J. Breiding and Brian S. Armour, “The association between disability and intimate partner violence

    in the United States,” Annals of Epidemiology 25 (6) (2015): 455–457, available at; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Infographic about LGB Teen Dating Violence Data,” available at (last accessed October 2018).

  12. Human Rights Campaign, “Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community,” available at (last accessed October 2018); National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Domestic Violence and the LGBTQ Community,” NCADV blog, comment posted June 6m, 2018, available at (last accessed October 23, 2018).
  13. Human Rights Campaign, “Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community”; “Domestic Violence and the LGBTQ Community,” NCADV blog, comment posted June 6m, 2018, available at (last accessed October 23, 2018); Taylor N.T. Brown and Jody L. Herman, “Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People” (Los Angeles: Williams Institute, 2015), available at
  14. Phyllis Holditch Niolon and others, “Preventing Intimate Partner Violence Across the Lifespan: A Technical Package of Programs, Policies, and Practices” (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and Division of Violence Prevention, 2017), available at; Sikivu Hutchinson, “The Wars Inside: Black Women and Deadly Intimate Partner Violence,” HuffPost, April 14, 2017, available at
  15. Erika Harrell, “Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 – Statistical Tables” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2017), available at; KA Barrett and others, “Intimate partner violence, health status, and health care access among women with disabilities,” Women’s Health Issues 19 (2) (2009) 94–100, available at
  16. University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, “Intimate Partner Violence and Common Tactics Used by Abusive Partners,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  17. Gabrielle Bardall, “Violence Against Women in Elections in Zimbabwe: An IFES Assessment” (Arlington, VA: International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 2017), available at
  18. Cesiah Guerra, “Isolation and Domestic Violence,” Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, March 29, 2018, available at  
  19. Arizona Coalition to End Domestic Violence, “Types of Domestic Violence,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  20. Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, “Internet Safety,” available at (last accessed October 2018); Jeffrey Gottfried and others, “The 2016 Presidential Campaign – a News Event That’s Hard to Miss” (Washington: Pew Research Center, 2016), available at
  21. Ibid.
  22. Kayla Goggin, “Black Churches Join Forces in Georgia Voter-Registration Drive,” Courthouse News Service, October 3, 2018, available at
  23. Pew Research Center, “With a Month to Go, Nearly Half of Voters Say They Have Been Contacted by 2016 Campaigns,” October 6, 2016, available at
  24. Raymond E. Wolfinger, Benjamin Highton, and Megan Mullin, “How Postregistration Laws Affect the Turnout of Citizens Registered to Vote,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 5 (1) (2005): 1–23, available at
  25. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Children as an Abusive Mechanism,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  26. Jodie T. Allen, “Reluctant Suffragettes: When Women Questioned Their Right to Vote,” Pew Research Center, March 18, 2009, available at
  27. Sarah Laskow, “Voting Booths Were a Radical 19th Century Reform to Stop Election Fraud,” Atlas Obscura, November 1, 2016, available at
  28. See, generally, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Why Do Victims Stay?”, available at (last accessed October 2018).
  29. Jean Hannah Edelstein, “ ‘Please skip our door’: what I learned canvassing for Clinton in Philadelphia,” The Guardian, November 7, 2016, available at
  30. See, generally, Wellstone, “Tips for Effective Voter Contact Scripts (Door and Phone),” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  31. Ibid.
  32. Rolph, “Voting can be dangerous for domestic violence survivors in Washington state.”
  33. Anne Broache, “Real ID worries domestic violence groups,” CNET, February 8, 2009, available at
  34. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, “Domestic Violence and Voter Registration: Safety Considerations” (2012), available at
  35. See, generally,, “Register To Vote In Your State By Using This Postcard Form and Guide,” available at (last accessed October 2018); U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “National Mail Voter Registration Form,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  36. Rolph, “Voting can be dangerous for domestic violence survivors in Washington state.”
  37. Drew DeSilver, “Q&A: The growing use of ‘voter files’ in studying the U.S. electorate” (Washington: Pew Research Center, 2018), available at
  38. Witlee Ethan, “Domestic violence victims need to be able to vote without being outed,” The Charlotte Observer, July 20, 2017, available at
  39. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Same Day Voter Registration,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  40. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, “Domestic Violence and Voter Registration.”
  41. The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered to Vote?” (2017), available at
  42. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Absentee and Early Voting,” available at (last accessed October 2018); National Conference of State Legislatures, “Same Day Voter Registration.”
  43. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Automatic Voter Registration,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  44. Nonprofit VOTE, “Voting and Domestic Violence,” available at (last accessed October 2018); National Network to End Domestic Violence, “State-by-State Listing of Address Confidentiality Programs,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  45. Rolph, “Voting can be dangerous for domestic violence survivors in Washington state.”
  46. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, “Domestic Violence and Voter Registration.”
  47. Mary Jo Pitzl, “Some using Arizona’s ‘confidentiality’ program find they can’t hide,” The Arizona Republic, November 30, 2016, available at
  48. Rob Low, “Domestic violence victim regrets registering to vote after address posted on web,” Fox 31, November 3, 2014, available at
  49. See, generally, My Sister’s Place, “Home,” available at (last accessed October 2018).
  50. Infoxchange, “Quick exit button now a crucial part of Ask Izzy,” April 13, 2018, available at
  51. California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, “Domestic Violence Awareness Month 2018: VOTE!”.
  52. Kaitlin Washburn, “Violence Against Women Act at risk of lapsing,” Center for Responsive Politics, October 3, 2018, available at
  53. “Revenge porn” refers to the distribution of explicit images of an individual—typically a romantic partner—without their permission. See Haley Goldberg, “Revenge Porn: When Domestic Violence Goes Viral,” Self, March 21, 2017, available at
  54. Katherine Scott, “Domestic Violence Program May Lapse Before #MeToo Midterms,” Bloomberg Government, August 31, 2018, available at; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, “Hundreds of Apps Can Empower Stalkers to Track Their Victims,” The New York Times, May 19, 2018, available at
  55. Josh Dawsey, Beth Reinhard, and Elise Viebeck, “Senior White House official to resign after ex-wives’ allegations of abuse,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2018, available at; #MeToo, “History and Vision,” available at (last accessed October 2018); Glenn Kessler, “Brett Kavanaugh and allegations of sexual misconduct: The complete list,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2018, available at

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Danielle Root

Former Director, Voting Rights and Access to Justice