Susanna Cox cannot vote.
For the 39-year-old engineer to register, she would have to make her address publicly available. As a domestic violence survivor who is living as off the grid as possible, that is simply not an option.
That is the decision many domestic violence survivors face throughout the United States. With voter information tied to home addresses, many feel participating in an election could put them at risk.
Cox lives in California, where she stays in short-term rentals, mostly on a month-to-month basis. In July, she was hacked after leaving a relationship and is working hard to rebuild her life. She is still hiding from her abusers. In her state, there are limitations on who can access voter registration lists, but experts say it can still pose a risk for survivors. In some states, there are no restrictions on who can request access to voter registration databases.
Some states are working to address the problem with address confidentiality programs (ACPs), says Rachel Gibson, senior technology safety specialist for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, but there’s no national policy to address the disenfranchisement many feel is their only option.
Sara, a 28-year old child abuse survivor in Minnesota, says she lives in constant fear of being found by her mother, who abused her and her siblings. Looking down the road at Nov. 3, she faces a similar situation as Cox.
Even though it’s been 10 years since she left home, Sara still has to take extra precautions for basic procedures. For utility bills, such as water or electricity, she uses an alias.
“All of my Amazon packages have to be delivered through an alias. I use Google Voice for phone numbers,” Sara said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of her safety.
Even though she says she has voted in every election since she turned 18, she had accepted that this year was going to be different. Since 2016, her mother’s behavior has gotten worse. Because Sara recently moved again and has a new address, she didn’t want to risk her mother finding out where she lives.
“Without Safe at Home, my mom could find my address through my votes. It also is a confidential address. Not even police have access to it,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have voted had I not enrolled. I’d rather maintain my personal safety.”
The National Network to End Domestic Violence compiled a chart of address confidentiality laws by state and recommends checking the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Access To and Use of Voter Registration Lists report to learn more about privacy protections in your state.
However, Gibson also warned that the safety of data even when there is a state program in place is not impregnable.
“[There are] significant challenges in effectively controlling this data, so it is not a guarantee of privacy. A few states also limit the sharing of residential address information to certain professions, such as victim advocates, people who work in reproductive justice, police and judges,” Gibson said.
This is exactly Cox’s fear. As someone who worked in information security and understands the tech landscape, she doesn’t trust how safe any information that lives online is.
“Absolutely not, I do not trust that to keep me safe,” she said. “There are a number of so-called security measures — I have not and would not use them.”
Unless voting was decoupled from home addresses, Cox won’t vote. As a Native American woman, she also feels less trustful of the U.S. government in general. In her life, she has only voted twice.
“I don’t really want to participate in a colonial electoral system anyway,” Cox said.
In Michigan, lawmakers have been trying to pass legislation to mask the addresses of domestic abuse survivors.
State Sen. Erika Geiss (D) said she is hopeful the bill will get out of the legislature and get signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in time to make a difference for this presidential election. But Kathy Hagenian, the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence’s executive policy director, said that in reality, it is unlikely the state would be able to do so in time for this year.
“It’s long overdue. We need to further protect people who are putting their lives back together so they can more fully engage as members of the electorate if they want to vote,” Geiss said.
For Sara, that engagement was pivotal when she found out about Minnesota’s Safe at Home program from her sister.
“I was so excited to finally have some freedom. … I don’t feel so scared. It’s been very good for my mental health,” Sara said.
On Thursday, she was getting ready to mail her ballot.