Georgia victims of domestic abuse may get some peace of mind, thanks to a change in the voting registration process that will keep their addresses confidential.
The U.S. Department of Justice has signed off on the program, called VoteSafe, which was approved by the Georgia legislature in 2009 and signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Under the Voting Rights Act, DOJ approval is necessary for any changes to Georgia's election procedures. VoteSafe would provide residency confidentiality to certain registered voters who have been, or may be, exposed to domestic violence, stalking, under protection orders or currently live in a family violence shelter.
"This is a very big deal for people who have gone underground, moving across the country and doing whatever they can to not be found by their batterers," said Nicole Lesser, executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
She and others, who work with victims, say it's not unheard of for stalkers and abusers to use the Internet and public records to locate people. "All the programs used to create more access for people can be used against them."
Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome), who sponsored the legislation, said it could save lives -- not just the victim's but others around them. People should not have to make a choice "between their safety or casting a vote," she said.
According to the Secretary of State's Web site, voter registration lists and files, which are available to the public, include a voter's name, residence address, mailing address if different, race, gender, registration date and last voting date. For a fee, the public can buy that information.
According to National Network to End Domestic Violence's Web site, 28 states have approved some form of voter confidentiality programs.
Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's office, said the idea came about after a domestic violence advocate contacted state election officials to get information on how shelter residents could register to vote.
For many women "there's a cloud that hangs over you -- this threat of being found," said Joan Prittie, executive director of Athens-based Project Safe, which provides an array of services to help domestic abuse victims as well as operates an emergency shelter. "People go to great lengths not to be found and one way is to limit their participation as citizens."
It's unclear how many Georgians could benefit from the program.
Between Dec. 1, 2008 and Nov. 20, 2009, more than 3,900 people -- age 18 or over -- found refuge in the state's 45 certified domestic violence shelters, said Allison Smith, economic justice coordinator for Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Advocates say many more victims are under protective orders and others may not even seek help.
People can participate in the program if they are a resident of Georgia, a registered voter, and are under either a protective order, protected by a restraining order or a resident of a family violence shelter.
Georgians can get additional information at www.sos.ga.gov/votesafe and download the application form. For additional information call the state's election division at 404-656-2871 or contact your county registrar's office.
Carrothers said the state is working with advocates and county election offices for education and outreach.