Survivors Are Still Locked Out of Democracy
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Earlier this year, we wrote a blog about how 100 years on from the Suffragettes, thousands of non-binary people and women still don’t have the right to vote. This week, the government has confirmed plans to simplify the process for survivors of domestic violence to vote anonymously.
The current, soon to change, system unfairly locks survivors of domestic violence out of voting by making it impossible to register to vote safely. As it stands today, a survivor must obtain evidence of their need to vote anonymously, by either obtaining a court order or an injunction (which most survivors of domestic violence do not have), proof from a Police Superintendent, the Director of Social Services or the Director General of the Security Services (i.e. MI5) – all of whom are incredibly difficult to reach. This system makes the voting process essentially impossible for the vast majority of survivors. However, the excellent campaign by Women’s Aid and others, such as campaigner Mehala Osborne, has forced the government to announce that it intends to broaden this list to include more easily contactable people, including refuge workers and medical or healthcare professionals.
At first glance, the proposed changes have the potential to positively impact the lives of women and non-binary survivors of domestic violence. People who, up until now, have had to jump through multiple, unachieveable, bureaucratic and administrative hoops to gain the right to vote without putting their lives at risk. Unsurprisingly, the changes were not put in place in time for the 2017 General Election (although Women’s Aid launched their campaign in March 2017), but they should be in effect in time for the next one.
This may seem positive, but in reality its impact will be negligible. The Tory government’s dismantling of domestic violence services, through savage austerity cuts, disproportionately affects access to safety for people who are already disadvantaged. When two thirds of women and non-binary people are turned away from refuges every day, even higher if you are from a BME background, are LGBTQ+, have a mental health problem, are disabled, or use substances, these new provisions will only be available to the minority who can access support. Even by this most conservative estimate, only 33% of domestic violence survivors will have access to voter anonymity through the proposed reforms.
And what about after you leave a refuge? As Women’s Aid have said, “anonymous voter registration should be indefinite.” However, the right to anonymity will end when a person leaves a refuge or service, meaning that survivors will be back to putting their lives at risk to register to vote. After years of lobbying and hard work the government is once again feeding us crumbs in the hope that we fall gratefully into silence. Chris Skidmore, the minister overseeing these policy developments, has gone on record to reassure the public that “every voice matters and this government will continue to encourage our record levels of democratic participation by ensuring we have a democracy that works for everyone”. But this has only ever been a democracy that works for the few. Thousands of women and non-binary people are still locked out of services, safety and the voting system.
People of all genders imprisoned in detention centres are denied the right to vote, despite the fact that three-quarters of women held in immigration detention are eventually released back to their communities. We know that this statistic would be even higher if gender non-conforming people were accurately reflected in the data. Many people in immigration detention are Commonwealth citizens, who are entitled to vote whilst living here and only prevented from doing so by detention. Predictably, immigration controls serve to oppress, silence and violate communities of colour, and in this context also prevent them from exercising their democratic rights.
Incarcerated people are also banned from voting. When at least 46% of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence, 53% were abused as children, and the vast majority of non-binary people and women are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes of survival and exploitation, as well as trans women being misgendered in their imprisonment resulting in three deaths in the past two years, silencing their votes as well is tantamount to erasing their voices, experiences and demands from government policy, funding and protection. Even in a parliamentary system so deeply flawed and undemocratic as ours, those made more vulnerable by the state and systemic inequalities should have a right to vote for decisions and parties that they believe will best meet their needs and aspirations.
Only certain voices seem to matter to this government – but we will not be silenced. Sisters Uncut will continue to fight alongside all non-binary people and women demanding their rights.