Domestic Abuse and Its Potential to Impact Elections: ‘Home Isn’t a Safe Place to Vote for Everyone’

“If someone is willing to block their partner’s access to political information in front of volunteers at their door, what else could they be doing, behind that door?”

New Georgia Project canvasser Mardie Hill (R), 64, speaks to a resident about an upcoming election on May 23, 2022, in East Point, Ga. Many election canvassers have reported forms of bullying, intimidation and silencing. “No one knows to what extent this domination may prevent women from voting according to their own beliefs and agendas or participating at all,” wrote Rebecca Solnit. (Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images)

Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy by Kylie Cheung, out Aug. 15, exposes the insidious—and often unseen—connections among domestic abuse, state-based violence, political disenfranchisement, and the carceral state. The following is an excerpt.

Tawni Maisonneuve, founder of the domestic abuse support group the Purple Owl Project in Toledo, Ohio, has survived several abusive relationships and marriages over the course of decades.

At one point in her life, Maisonneuve worked as a manager in her state senator’s office and was deeply involved in her community as an activist. But the abuse she endured in her relationships took a toll: Several of her partners blocked her access to political information and coerced her to vote in a certain way, or stopped her from voting at all.

The toll of this abuse had lasting impacts: “My divorce was final in 1994, and I didn’t even vote after that for the simple fact that I didn’t want to run into him at any polls, I just didn’t want to deal with any of those dynamics,” said Maisonneuve.

In her next relationship, Maisonneuve said she “felt if I didn’t vote the way he did, or I didn’t agree with those political views, it would really be a physical issue” threatening her safety. When she did go to her polling place to vote, her abusive partner would accompany her, tell poll workers, “She’s slow, I gotta walk her through it,” and proceed to vote on her behalf.

Stories like Maisonneuve’s aren’t uncommon. They’re part of an alarming trend that’s largely invisible to pundits, poll workers, and the country at large.

What we see at the doorstep of an abusive household is just the surface, just one visible layer that almost inevitably hides far worse behind it.

The first time I thought about domestic abuse and its potential to impact elections, I was reading a 2018 essay by author and cultural critic Rebecca Solnit, in which she reflects on anecdotes shared by campaign organizers and canvassers, about wives answering the door only for their husbands to intervene and send them away. Solnit writes:

Husbands answered the door and refused to let the wife speak to canvassers, or talked or shouted over her, or insisted that she was going to vote Republican even though she was a registered Democrat, or insisted there were no Democrats in the house because she had never told him she was one. A friend in Iowa told me, “I asked the woman who answered the door if she had a plan for voting, and a man appeared, behind her, and said, quite brusquely, ‘I’m a Republican.’ Before I could reply, he shut the door in my face.”

Another friend reported, “A woman I texted in Michigan told me, ‘I am not allowed’ to vote for the candidate.” Many canvassers told me those experiences were common.

As a frequent canvasser myself since I was a college student, I’ve experienced this sort of interaction up close, and for years my instinctive reaction was fear and discomfort at being snapped at by an intimidating, older man. But Solnit’s analysis stayed with me because, as she points out, what we see at the doorstep of an abusive household is just the surface, just one visible layer that almost inevitably hides far worse behind it.

If someone is willing to block their partner’s access to political information in front of volunteers at their door, what else could they be doing, behind that door?

Every now and then, I would think about Solnit’s essay as I knocked on doors or pondered whether there was more to the story. Polling data showed women voting in large numbers for political candidates who had built their entire platforms around denying women, survivors and pregnant people bodily autonomy and dignity, through policies criminalizing reproductive care or otherwise harming and punishing sexual violence victims. All this, despite research that shows being denied abortion care substantially increases someone’s risk of experiencing long-term domestic violence and their risk of homicide from abusive partners. (White women have particularly played an active role in voting and organizing to uphold white supremacy, even sometimes at the cost of their reproductive rights—a steep price to pay for any pregnant-capable person, regardless of wealth or any other privileges they may hold.)

Nonetheless, even prior to the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade, abortion bans like S.B. 8 in Texas have underscored how white supremacy exists at the heart of abortion bans, singling out abuse victims of color. S.B. 8 allowed anyone in the country to sue anyone who may have helped a Texan have an abortion, for at least $10,000 in damages. The ban has rendered domestic violence victims with vengeful exes—and the disproportionately Black, Latino and migrant people who are more likely to have abortions in Texas—especially vulnerable to this citizen policing.

Relatedly, a 2022 report from reproductive justice legal advocacy organization If/When/How found the majority of cases in which pregnant people faced criminal charges for self-managed abortion in the past two decades were first reported to law enforcement by doctors and acquaintances, specifically friends and intimate partners.

Citizen-policing historically traces its roots to the period of American history when lynching by white-supremacist citizen militias targeting Black people was more overt; the legacy of this violence has persisted to this day, between the citizen-perpetrated killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black man in 2012, and Ahmaud Arbery, killed by a white supremacist militia in 2020. The architects of Texas’ abortion ban were surely aware of this legacy.

Pursuit of the benefits and protections that white supremacy extends to white women is certainly one explanation for why a majority of white women vote Republican. Still, my casual searches for existing research or data on the matter of why women may vote for or support anti-women politicians, and the potential role domestic violence plays in creating these outcomes, often came up empty.

And then came the spring of 2020. By March 2020, the field of contenders in the U.S. presidential election had been narrowed to two wealthy white men both accused of sexual abuse. And, of course, while all that was happening, reported domestic violence cases had skyrocketed as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts and the public increasingly demanded that voting in the remaining primary and general elections during the pandemic take place at home by mail—and while this will always be an important option, home isn’t a safe place to vote for everyone. 

Excerpted from Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy by Kylie Cheung published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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Kylie Cheung writes about reproductive and survivor justice, and is the author of Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy, available Aug. 15.