victims to vote anonymously

Bristol campaigner wins right for domestic abuse victims to vote anonymously

By The Bristol Post  |  Posted: March 05, 2017

A campaigner from Kingswood has won her bid for victims of domestic abuse to vote without needing to declare where they live.

Mehala Osborne and her son young son Mkhai, now aged two, fled her abusive partner and was given a place in a women’s refuge, funded by Bristol City Council.

When she went to register to vote in Bristol’s 2016 mayoral and council elections, she was told she couldn’t register on the electoral roll using the refuge’s address as its whereabouts had to remain a secret.

For her to be eligible to vote, Ms Osborne had to seek permission to become an anonymously-registered voter from either the chief superintendent of Avon and Somerset Police, the director of the local social services – or the head of MI5.

The stark realisation of the difficulties involved for domestic abuse survivors encouraged the nursing student to embark on a campaign to make it easier for those affected to register anonymously – something her own MP, and now a Cabinet Office minister, Chris Skidmore has helped her to achieve.

The Conservative Kingswood MP announced on Friday that he was proposing that it should now be simpler for those who require anonymity for their own safety to register to vote.

Many domestic abuse victims do not wish to declare their address publicly on the electoral roll in case they of being tracked down by their abusers.

Mehala Osborne

Restraining orders issued by the courts or other authorities should be acceptable as proof, said Mr Skidmore, while the professional threshold for “attesters” in the police or social services department should also be lowered, he suggested.

Ms Osborne, founder of the Right to Vote campaign, said she was pleased abuse survivors would no longer be “denied their voice”.

She said: “I was denied a vote whilst living in a refuge, and I never realised how much having a vote meant until it was taken away from me.

“I had already been through enough, and to be disempowered even more was so difficult.

“I am so proud to have started the campaign that has led to these proposed changes. Survivors in the future will not be denied their voice and democratic right to vote.”

The proposed changes, which the Government is now consulting on, also covers victims of harassment or stalking, as well as some witnesses in criminal court cases.

The Cabinet Office said the current system had come under criticism for “lacking the flexibility and understanding of various scenarios which survivors of domestic abuse often find themselves in”.

Mr Skidmore, having met his constituent Ms Osborne about her case before he became a minister, is understood to have personally driven the new initiatives, meeting with charities such as Women’s Aid over the last six months.

Women’s Aid estimate that the proposals in the policy statement could help thousands of survivors of domestic abuse.

Mr Skidmore, in his role as Minister for the Constitution, said: “This Government is committed to removing any barriers that prevent voters from exercising their democratic right.

“Having met survivors of domestic abuse over the past six months, it is clear that the existing system has often let down those affected by domestic abuse.

“Protecting the safety of survivors by making it easier for them to register to vote without their name and address appearing on the electoral register is a key part of that change.

“We are clear that those who have been constrained by their abusers must have full freedom to express themselves in the democratic process – part of this Government’s determination to build a democracy that works for everyone.”

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, welcomed the move and personally thanked Mr Skidmore for his “decisive action”.

“The proposed new measures send out a clear message to all survivors of domestic abuse: that their voices matter, and their participation in politics matters,” she said.

To take part in the consultation on the changes, email the Cabinet Office at [email protected]