Today, MPs are debating whether to make it easier for domestic abuse victims to vote anonymously

There are an estimated 12,000 women living in refuges at any one time – but in 2016, only around 2,300 people in the UK were registered to vote anonymously. We must ensure they have a voice

Chloe Smith
Wednesday 07 February 2018 11:25 GMT
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(Getty)

This year is the centenary of the first women being granted the right to vote, and 90 years since women won the equal right to vote. I can think of no better way to celebrate female suffrage then to pay tribute to the commitment of domestic abuse survivor Mehala Osborne, a single mother living in Bristol.

Two years ago she started a petition to give refuge managers the power to sign the anonymous registration form needed for victims of domestic abuse to register to vote anonymously. The petition started because she couldn’t register to vote while living in a safe house. She was unable to register to vote for fear her address would be made public and her abuser could find her. She didn’t have the necessary documents to be able to qualify to register to vote anonymously, so she didn’t have a voice.

Her petition, supported by Women’s Aid, got over 22,000 signatures. There are an estimated 12,000 women living in refuges at any one time – but in 2016, only around 2,300 people in the UK were registered to vote anonymously. The draft legislation being debated in Parliament today proposes to make it easier for those women to exercise their democratic right.

There might be lots of reasons why survivors of domestic abuse might not register to vote – one can be that they fear their name and address will appear on the public electoral register. The truth is, you can register anonymously. And we’re making that easier.

In our evidence-gathering visits, the Government heard from survivors that some find the information they need to provide to complete the form for anonymous registration too complex. Others can’t get to the people who could attest to risks to their safety. This means some don’t feel they can vote.

With input from survivors such as Mehala, organisations supporting domestic abuse survivors, the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, the Government has proposed changes to the law that make it easier to register to vote anonymously, and this will be debated in the House of Commons. Once the changes are later debated in the House of Lords and agreed, survivors will be able to get a signature from refuge managers, medical practitioners, nurses or midwives, which certifies that their safety is at risk.

Police can sign the form too but these changes support survivors who, for whatever reason, do not want to engage with the criminal justice system.

Budget 2017: Domestic violence charities to receive £20 million boost

I’m proud of how seriously this Government is tackling domestic abuse – we have pledged £100m in dedicated funding until 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls, and our upcoming consultation on a draft Domestic Abuse Bill will help to bring this heinous crime out of the shadows and ensure victims receive both support and justice.

Not all victims of domestic abuse are women and all survivors will be protected by these changes.

This change to our election law means people can still vote without having to put themselves or their children at risk by letting their address be known. It may be a small thing, but it makes a big difference. It means the freedom to live your life, cast your vote, and make your choice.

Chloe Smith is MP for Norwich North and Minister for the Constitution

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