Domestic abuse survivors ‘blocked from voting due to an antiquated system that puts lives at risk’

Maya Oppenheim
A voter sits with her horse after riding to a polling station set up in a pub near Tonbridge, Kent: AFP/Getty

Women who have been subjected to domestic abuse are effectively blocked from voting in general elections due to an “antiquated” system that puts their lives at risk, frontline services providers have warned.

Domestic abuse survivors are frightened to cast a ballot in the forthcoming election over fears their abusive former partner would be able to find their address on the electoral register, which is a public document.

Campaigners say such women are being excluded from the democratic process due to fears they will be tracked down by their perpetrators – noting domestic homicides often happen years after the woman has escaped.

Changes that came into force last year have made it simpler for survivors of abuse to register to vote anonymously but reforms have not gone far enough. Women are forced to keep reapplying with fresh evidence each year to make sure their address remains anonymous and is not suddenly exposed to the public.

Frontline service providers condemned the fact that abuse victims are only granted a year of anonymity and called for it to be lifelong. They argue anonymity is an issue of “life or death”.

Sue Tapper, who works at Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge, said: “It is disgraceful because the survivor has to keep reliving their abuse and it puts them in victim rather than survivor mode. It is a nuisance and it will stop women voting. They are being penalised. It is an antiquated system.

“[The government] asks for injunctions which are in place at the moment but these are not eligible as evidence [to reapply for anonymity] if the end date [of the injunction] is over. We want lifelong anonymity for women. Perpetrators do not give up. They still want to exert control over someone even if they are with someone new. They often feel they own women so believe these women aren’t allowed to end a relationship and it only ends when they decide it ends.

“For example, a woman came and visited me after five years of leaving the refuge this week. She said her ex is abusing her again through the children. He has been given custody. He subjected her to coercive control during their relationship and was convicted of domestic violence.”

Ms Tapper, who helps survivors with legal issues, debt, housing, and immigration, said victims “lose their voice” during abusive relationships and their routine exclusion from the voting process is effectively an extension of this.

The frontline worker, who has worked at the refuge for eight years, said she had recently spoken to a domestic violence survivor who was not allowed to have an “opinion on politics or anything” – as well as being forced to stop working by her ex partner.

Ms Tapper said: “He subjected her to horrific abuse. She is a very intelligent woman and he destroyed her confidence. She has not voted for a long time. She says she is definitely going to vote and will sit down first to properly understand the issues and get her confidence back and make an informed choice. Anonymous voting allows survivors to get their voice back to do that safely with peace of mind.”

The domestic abuse advocate, who noted their refuge takes in high-risk women who are at risk of being murdered, argued many survivors of abuse across the country have no idea they are able to register anonymously and are oblivious to the process.

Domestic abuse victims should be given a card to allow them to vote anonymously – it could look like a national insurance number card, she said.

Ms Tapper said the process for anonymous registration was “really difficult” before the government introduced changes to the system last year – noting the application previously had to be signed off by the most senior figures in government agencies, who were impossible to track down.

The changes made to the system last year – on the 100th anniversary of the first British women getting the right to vote – included broadening the list of evidence of abuse that survivors can provide and expanding the scope of individuals eligible to officially verify a survivor’s safety is at risk. The verifiers now include refuge managers, health professionals and police inspectors.

Karen Ingala Smith, who has been tracking the numbers of women killed by men for an annual census on femicide in the UK, said: “Data from the Femicide Census for 2009-15 showed that approximately one third of women killed by partners were killed after separation, of these, at least three quarters were killed in the first year post separation.

“However, at least 8 per cent of women killed by ex-partners were killed between one and three years after separation and at least 4.5 per cent more were killed over three years after ending their relationship with the abuser. This shows in the starkest of ways that for some women, a year is not enough to guarantee their safety; or another way of looking it is that some men hold on to their murderous rage for more than 12 months.

“Men often kill women who have had the temerity to leave them. Sometimes when a man realises he no longer able to exert control in a relationship, he makes the choice to exert the ultimate control of a woman and kill her when she has made the step of removing herself. The women who are lucky or unlucky enough to have a perpetrator who has served a jail sentence know when he comes out he might be feeling particularly vengeful.”

Ms Ingala Smith said women who have suffered domestic abuse are “the expert” at knowing the risk posed by the man they were with – adding that she hates to think a bureaucrat might assume they know better than her.

The campaigner noted women who have endured domestic violence undertake a raft of measures to keep their address secret from a former partner and this demonstrates the risk is “ongoing”.

Such actions include living in a refuge with a highly secret address, getting special dispensation in court proceedings so the judge does not reveal her address, and dropping off children only at contact centres, she said.

Every week in the UK, two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. Statistics show women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner – some 55 per cent of the women murdered by their ex in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation and 87 per cent in the first year.

Lucy Hadley, campaigns and public affairs manager at Women’s Aid, a group of charities involved in securing the recent reforms around anonymous registration, said she was pleased about the changes.

“But at the time we pushed for longer-term changes,” she added. “Unfortunately, the system only works for 12 months. Asking victims to keep having to go back to register could be a barrier to voting. Once you have got it, you should have it for life.”

She added: “We know the risk of domestic abuse can be lifelong and survivors have to protect themselves for life but frontline professionals are not always aware of post separation abuse and how long women remain at risk for. There have been many cases of domestic homicide where women have been killed years afterwards by the abuser.”

Read more

Tens of thousands of ‘abuse victims at risk over NI number’