COVINGTON, Ky. — As the instances and severity of gender-based violence increase across Greater Cincinnati, a growing number of survivors are forced to worry about their safety in every aspect of their daily lives.
Whether it’s safe for them to register to vote should not be one of their concerns, advocates say.
“One voice, one vote, and this is your constitutional right,” said Kristin Shrimplin, executive director of Cincinnati-based Women Helping Women. “When you lose autonomy of your body, everything else tends to go to the wayside when you’re trying to wake up, day in and day out, literally to stay alive. And then when you get to stay alive, you are literally trying to scrape it together, to find some sort of agency of self -- and sometimes in really small ways. So then to be able to get to constitutional rights, like the right to vote, there’s so many pieces to that.”
Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana all have address-confidentiality programs designed to help survivors stay safe while still exercising their right to vote.
While there are important differences in the programs, all are designed to prevent survivors’ addresses from becoming public records that their abusers could access. All three programs also give participants the option of voting by absentee ballot.
For people who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, it’s one fewer concern during a time that has advocates increasingly worried.
“Domestic violence and sexual violence thrive in isolation, and, unfortunately, the pandemic has really required that,” said Christy Burch, executive director of the Women’s Crisis Center in Covington, Ky. “We’re very, very concerned. The longer this goes, the harder this is for survivors of violence and the trauma.”
Here’s how each state’s address-confidentiality program works.
Ohio’s program is called Safe at Home.
Safe at Home hides any address on government documents and websites for people who have experienced domestic violence, stalking, human trafficking, rape or sexual battery. Interested survivors can get more information online or by calling (614) 995-2244 to find an application assistant.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is working on legislation to expand Safe at Home to shield home addresses on county websites and to offer more protection for participants’ addresses in court records, too, according to Maggie Sheehan, press secretary for the Office of the Ohio Secretary of State.
There are currently 1,132 participants in the Safe at Home program, Sheehan said, but not all of them are voters.
The program is for survivors of domestic abuse, stalking or sexual assault. People who apply to the Indiana attorney general and qualify for the program can designate an address provided by the attorney general as their address to receive legal documents and mail. The program doesn’t automatically apply to everyone who is granted a protective order by a court.
Participants in the program are entitled to an absentee ballot in any election that is conducted during the year in which they apply for one and can use their designated address to receive their ballots. County voter registration offices can only release identifying information for those voters to a law enforcement agency or when directed by a court order to release the information.
Indiana’s address confidentiality program has just over 300 participants. Many have registered to vote in the upcoming election and, because of their participation in the program, are eligible to complete a special form to protect that address from being released on the public voter rolls, according to Lauren Houck, the assistant deputy director of community for the Office of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill.
The Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office administers Kentucky’s address confidentiality program.
People are eligible to participate if they have a current emergency protective order or domestic violence order or if they are survivors of specific offenses, including domestic violence and abuse, stalking, a sex crime or a crime against a minor victim. People must apply to participate.
Participants can vote via mail-in absentee ballots, and their names and addresses are not included on any publicly available voter records.
The certification lasts for two years unless it is canceled or the participant withdraws before the expiration date, and it can be renewed before the expiration date. Skyler Luttrell, the program coordinator, did not want to say exactly how many people are enrolled in the program.
“What I will say is that, over the past few years, dozens and dozens of women and men have utilized the program, and I hope it has brought them some form of peace of mind and comfort,” Luttrell said in an email to WCPO 9. “I became the program coordinator less than a year ago, but already these participants and their stories have left a profoundly impactful mark on me.”
‘Putting fuel on the fire’
The state law that created Kentucky’s address confidentiality program was designed to be broader and apply to circumstances beyond voting, but the state has not dedicated the funding it would take to expand the program, said Mary Savage, legal counsel for the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Broader programs hide the addresses of domestic violence survivors on other types of documents, too, and some even accept mail for survivors at a state-designated office and then forward it to them, she said.
“To have a program like that, it requires a lot of coordination among a lot of different systems in the state,” she said, many of which use technology that doesn’t easily communicate with each other.
As the program is currently being implemented, Savage said, it addresses concerns about survivors’ addresses being made public through state voter registration information.
“It's definitely taken care of if they’re participants in the program,” she said. “I just don’t think the program itself has been very widely advertised.”
The need for such programs is clear.
The Women’s Crisis Center provides 17,000 bed nights for people the organization serves in the Tri-State region. And even though the organization has had to reduce capacity at its domestic violence shelters in Newport and Maysville, the organization has seen an increase in the number of bed nights - or the number of nights people spend in shelter - this year over last year, Burch said.
Southwest Ohio has seen the violence increase, too.
Women Helping Women has seen its total number of clients in Hamilton County increase by 25% when comparing March through September of 2019 and March through September of this year. The organization’s 24-hour hotline has seen a 53% increase in calls during that time period, too. And a new texting program launched in April to give survivors a discreet way to seek help during the pandemic got 1,070 texts between its launch and Oct. 20.
But at the same time the need has increased, Women Helping Women has lost $320,000 in federal funds that it usually receives through the federal Victims of Crime Act and lost another $120,000 when the organization had to cancel its annual Light Up the Night gala because of health concerns.
“The math doesn’t add up,” Shrimplin said. “And what we’re really concerned about is this is putting fuel on the fire. This is not stopping the violence. This is not even getting close to preventing violence when you strip away funding.”
Both Women Helping Women and Women’s Crisis Center need donations to continue their missions, and Women’s Crisis Center also is in need of volunteers. Go to Women Helping Women’s website and Women’s Crisis Center’s website for more information about how to help.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.