“What will make me and my family safer?”
As two women of color who have worked for decades to end domestic violence, we are often asked some version of this question at work, out buying groceries, or during a late-night phone call with someone struggling to survive violence. It is a profound question. There are the immediate needs – safety planning, housing, breaking through isolation and self-blame. But after listening to survivors or surviving family members year after year, a deeper question comes to mind: How, in a world filled with violence, can women and their families be truly safe?
What we’ve learned is this: Safety is not just the absence of physical violence. True safety is freedom of the mind, freedom to live and love freely without fear, and the freedom to participate fully in society without looking over your shoulder. Not living as a second-class citizen because of your background. And this freedom includes the right to participate in our democracy.
Voting rights for domestic violence survivors and women at the margins translate to voice. When the ability to voice political preferences and beliefs is taken away from survivors of abuse, we not only render them voiceless, but we also silence their very humanity.
That is why we applaud our state senators for passing a bill that would restore voting rights to over 20,000 Washingtonians. Currently, people with past felony convictions cannot vote for the months or years that they are on community supervision, and they could have their rights revoked if they cannot pay off their court debt. House Bill 1078, which our senators passed on Wednesday, will automatically restore voting rights to all citizens – including survivors who have been incarcerated – as soon as they have returned home from prison.
Although we are overjoyed at this much-needed expansion of democracy, we were disappointed that some lawmakers during the floor debate continued to use survivors of crime to justify the denial of voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. As the executive director and a board member of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we see things differently. We see the right to vote as an expression of our humanity. The value of this expression should not be measured by one’s prior involvement with a criminal legal system that often demonizes victims and perpetrators of crimes.
Survivors are not safer or better off when society blocks people from the ballot box. The truth is quite the opposite.
First of all, most women in prison are themselves survivors of severe, lifetime sexual and domestic violence. In fact, the “abuse-to-prison pipeline” is a leading reason why women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population. These survivors’ involvement with the criminal legal system is overwhelmingly the result of their trauma, acts of self-defense, being forced or coerced by their partners to engage in criminal activities, lacking funds for legal representation, and not fitting the racist stereotype of “the perfect victim.” After all the violations they have already experienced, they do not need further violations of their rights.
Second, because most people who have gone to prison will return to society, communities are safer when people re-entering society after prison are able to quickly find stability and community.
We often hear from survivors that what they want is for the abusive behavior to stop and for the person who caused them harm to get help. This is particularly true in cases in which the offense was committed by a family member. What actually reduces the likelihood of future harm? Stable housing, employment, faith, community connection and other supports that reduce the risk of returning to the system.
Restoration of voting rights will be part of this system of reintegration and support. Research has shown that when people are connected to their community through voting, they are much less likely to cause further harm and end up back in the system, making all our communities safer.
The implementation of House Bill 1078 will also help address the racist history of felony disenfranchisement. Black and Indigenous people make up just 6% of Washington’s population, yet they represent over 16% of people on community supervision. And in many of these cases, they have been convicted of nonviolent drug-related offenses.
We are thankful that many of our senators saw past the divisive rhetoric that was used in the name of survivors during the floor debate. Instead, they chose to listen to the broad coalition of supporters in our state, including formerly incarcerated survivors, the Department of Corrections, and yes, the larger survivor community and their families. It is about time that our state restored the fundamental right to vote to every citizen living in our communities.
Judy Chen is executive director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV). Kiantha Duncan is a member of the WSCADV Board of Directors and Spokane’s NAACP chapter president.
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