The Fuller Project
As millions of Americans cast their ballots in this year’s contentious presidential election, domestic violence survivor Susanna Cox will abstain from the polls.
To register, voters must include their address, which becomes publicly available information. As someone who has fled abuse and is still evading their abusers, Cox just can’t take the risk.
A few months ago, Susanna Cox (who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as two-spirit) says they were “hacked and swatted.” The 39-year-old machine learning engineer’s abusers found them through a legal document from which their phone number had not been redacted. Getting their life back together since has required “extraordinary measures,” and Cox is currently living “off the grid” with their children. They have given up a month’s rent on a costly California apartment, they say, and worked hard to recover their hacked accounts without being discovered before settling down in their new location.
Doing this safely has involved careful calculations. For instance, to recover some accounts, Cox says they went to a hotel in a place they’d never visited so that no one following them could anticipate their movements. “I calculate the relative distance that I think anybody might be looking for me and the length of time it would take to travel versus how long it will take me to get into my accounts over hotel Wi-Fi,” they say. “That's a gamble.” Once they logged into their accounts, they had to be quick, because logging in meant potentially alerting their abusers to their location. After they’d done so, it was time to leave the hotel, fast.
Cox believes their abusers’ tactics “were deliberately … designed to cut off my economic and social support,” they say.
“I’ve lost days and weeks of my life to this.”
Cox, who describes themself as a Cherokee descendent, doesn’t want to nullify this exhausting effort by registering to vote at their new address. They’ve only voted in two elections in their lifetime for this reason, during brief periods of safety.
Cox is among the disproportionate number of Native people assigned female at birth who are subject to domestic violence in the U.S. Combined with the barriers to voting Native Americans already encounter, survivors like Cox face unique obstacles to casting ballots, says Danielle Root, voting rights associate director at the Center for American Progress, who has researched the issues that prevent domestic violence survivors from voting. These unique obstacles for Native survivors, she adds, haven’t been extensively studied and “require more analysis.”
Eighty-four percent of American Indian or Alaska Native women experience violence, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study, and 55 percent have been attacked by intimate partners. The same year, the National Crime Information Center counted 5,712 missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States.
“We’re 10 times more likely in some places to be murdered,” says Cox. “I don’t know a single Indigenous woman who hasn’t been touched by violence.”
When violence is that commonplace, using any measure possible to prevent it becomes key to survival. For Cox, voting simply isn’t worth it.
Many civil and commercial acts can make an address public. Completing a change of address form for the U.S. Post Office, making an online purchase, and even applying for a discount card at the grocery store can “upend address privacy,” says Corbin Streett, technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Voter privacy is just part of this puzzle, but it’s a crucial one as the U.S. navigates a particularly fraught and consequential presidential election during a pandemic.
When Cox tweeted in September about why they couldn’t vote, a wave of shocked responses followed. Some people shared that their stalkers had found their addresses through their voting registration. Others expressed alarm that participating in elections meant publicizing their information.
“I have gotten a number of panicked tweets and messages from people saying, ‘Oh my god, my abuser can find me. I wish I’d known this before,’” Cox says.
Indigenous survivors like Cox need protective information most urgently, but many times don’t have access to the information, according to Elizabeth Carr, senior Native affairs advisor at Native helpline StrongHearts. While Address Confidentiality Programs provide survivors of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and other crimes with addresses — often P.O. boxes — to use in place of their real addresses when interacting with public agencies (like the DMV), Carr says she was unaware of these programs doing direct outreach to Native communities or survivors. This doesn’t mean they don’t do outreach, just that the outreach is not enough to alert the widely used national helpline.
“Our guess is that they do not just based on limited [state] outreach to American Indian and Native Alaskan communities generally,” she says. Because of the “heightened attention” paid to this year’s election, Carr adds, there’s “extra interest in how to register [to vote] and cast a ballot safely.”
StrongHearts only just put up a list of state Address Confidentiality Programs on its website last month, after a concerned hotline caller asked about voter registration privacy. “We realized there was no central repository for this information,” Carr says, for the people they serve.
Thirty-nine U.S. states have Address Confidentiality Programs. Washington state created the first program in 1991.
“My understanding is that it began with someone who wanted to register to vote but knew that information was public record,” says Brenda Sites, vice president of the National Association of Confidential Address Programs Board, a membership organization formed so that different state-level programs could informally compare notes and work to strengthen address confidentiality efforts nationwide.
Today, 25 state-level programs, including Washington, D.C., are members of the national association. As of December 2019, the association counted more than 37,000 active participants across 27 states’ Address Confidentiality Programs. Most programs don’t track how many participants are domestic violence survivors, but Sites says she believes they make up the majority of those served.
Of course, Address Confidentiality Programs have their limits. As Ruth Glenn, CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is careful to point out, they aren’t “safety programs,” but rather “one more tool at your disposal to keep your address confidential.”
They also may not make sense for some Native survivors to use. As Carr points out, many who live on tribal lands or in other rural areas already use P.O. boxes as their addresses. This disqualifies them from voting in states like North Dakota, where physical addresses are required for voter registration (though the state has made progress toward letting voters register without residential addresses). Carr says she is not sure how those state laws would apply to Address Confidentiality Program participants who use P.O. boxes through the program. North Dakota does not currently have an Address Confidentiality Program, though it does have Marsy’s Law, which gives crime victims the right to prevent disclosure of their location information. The law doesn’t specify how this would apply to voter registration.
Publicizing Address Confidentiality Programs can be tricky as well. Survivors need to learn about them, while abusers shouldn’t, says Sites. “It’s “a double-edged sword.”
Some of the outreach to survivors happens through local networks in hair salons or laundromats, for example. Other advocates rely on local domestic violence programs to spread the word, or send information to public schools and libraries. It’s difficult to measure how effective these measures are at informing Native survivors, but one national Native-led anti-violence organization, providing information on background, said it hadn’t seen any direct outreach to Native survivors about address privacy and voter registration. Access to information about government programs, of course, varies between Native people living in cities, rural settings, and as citizens of different tribes.
However, Merri Tiseth, executive director of Arizona’s Address Confidentiality Program, says reaching out to these communities is one of their priorities.
Since Arizona issued stay-at-home orders earlier in the pandemic, the program has reached out to the state’s 21 federally recognized tribes by providing web-based trainings on program applications for local advocates. Less than 1 percent of program users in Arizona identify as Native or Indigenous, says Tiseth, but not everyone using the program provides demographic information.
Washington’s Address Confidentiality Program works in Native communities as well, according to Sites. (Washington’s program did not immediately reply to The Fuller Project’s requests for comment.)
The National Association of Confidential Address Programs is the closest to a cohesive, national effort the United States has for protecting voting survivors. Over the last couple of years, the association has worked “very closely” with the Census Bureau, says Sites, so it could give uniform guidance to each state about how program participants can respond to the census safely.
The organization is also responsible for some pending national legislation—the Safe at Home Act. Currently in the House, the bill would require the federal government to “acknowledge and accept” program participants’ substitute addresses. (Since these programs operate at the state level, federal-level actions like applying for patents or getting passports still request participants’ real addresses.)
Cox doesn’t use or plan to use an Address Confidentiality Program. “From what I have seen, I have serious concerns about my personal security if I were to do so,” they say, acknowledging that the programs “may be an effective solution for others.” It all depends on the “threat model,” they add, and Cox describes their abusers as “tech-savvy engineers who have already demonstrated a willingness and ability to find me,” having cloned Cox’s phone and hacked their accounts.
In addition to these concerns about the program, Cox just doesn’t have confidence in U.S. government institutions.
Disenfranchisement for Cox and other vulnerable people is built into these institutions, which the dearth of protections for survivors hoping to vote lays bare, says Cox.
“We need to decolonize, and I’d like to return to Indigenous life ways, full stop,” they say. “I don't think you can reform a system that was created entirely on white supremacy.”
This article was originally published by The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women. Jessica Klein is a contributing journalist to The Fuller Project.