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What You Need to Know About Voter Intimidation—and What To Do If You See It Happening

What You Need to Know About Voter Intimidation—and What To Do If You See It Happening

Much of our country’s voting population is already on edge as we approach Election Day on Tuesday: Are the polls to be believed? Are the lines—already stretching on for hours across the country during early voting—showing any signs of abating? (And is that a good thing or a bad thing?) And, yes: Will our votes—all of them, whether in-person or mail-in—be counted?

What seems to be a record turnout, so far, is heartening. Early signs that voter intimidation attempts at or near polling places might also be in the rise, though, are troubling. Why the increase? One reason is that the president—who, during earlier rallies, encouraged his fans to rough up any protesters they saw—openly stated during a nationally televised debate: “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen.” Trump also claimed (falsely) that somewhere between three and five million people voted illegally in the last election, and that his campaign has been collecting signatures for months from supporters who are willing to “watch” the voting this time—just to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up.

The increasing visibility of far-right extremist groups, many of them armed, would seem to add fuel to the fire. So, too, does the expiration of a 1981 decree that bars the Republican National Committee from pursuing “ballot security” measures. The decree was enacted after the Democratic National Committee sued the RNC to stop them from purging Black citizens from voter rolls by nefarious means, including hiring off-duty cops with “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands to patrol predominantly Black precincts. Seven years later, after an RNC official was caught saying that the voter-challenge list they were maintaining could “keep the Black vote down considerably,” the decree was updated

In 1990, after the RNC was found to be intimidating voters with postcard mailings listing voting regulations, the decree was updated again, and in 2004, after another RNC voter-challenge list targeting Black voters was discovered, it was updated yet again. Yet in 2017, a federal judge let this decree expire. Was voter intimidation dying out? No—it was simply being outsourced away from the RNC.

Just why are Democrats trying to make it easier for everyone to vote while Republicans—both currently and historically—are seemingly doing everything within their ability to make voting more difficult? That one’s easy: Simple demographics show a kind of death-spiral for their entire party as the electorate gets younger, more diverse, and more liberal. Without limiting voting—and without an almost ridiculous kind of gerrymandering to conjure Republican-friendly districts out of Democratic-trending areas—they would have already ceased to be a viable party.

All that being said, are there indications of widespread and organized attempts at voter intimidation? Not so far—but the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is working with the Institute of Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University to provide legal response to any voters reporting intimidation at the polls, has noted that they’ve seen a rise in complaints already, including reports of militia activity.

But … isn’t this … illegal? Well, yeah: Federal law says that “no person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.” One would think that doing something like, say, brandishing a weapon at a polling place would be covered under this—but one would be wrong: Only about a dozen states explicitly ban either concealed or open-carry weapons at the polls. (Michigan’s Secretary of State, who recently banned such weapons, had that order overturned by the state’s Republican-dominated Supreme Court this week.)

What the law does prohibit: 

  • People trying to keep other people away from voting places or from casting their vote;

  • Confronting voters in an aggressive fashion—bonus points if you’re wearing paramilitary clothing, gear, or weapons;

  • Threatening some kind of violence;

  • Spreading misinformation about voting, or (ahem) voter fraud;

  • Following voters to or from a voting place. Most states have a law banning protesting or campaigning of any kind within a certain distance—maybe 50 or 75 feet—of polling locations.

  • Beware of anyone asking you, or anyone around you, about your (or their) citizenship or criminal record—textbook intimidation. (If someone ostensibly “official” is asking you these questions or is otherwise seeming to impede your vote, know that you can sign a sworn statement which affirms that you are who you say you are, thus allowing you to vote—in any state. Demand an “affidavit ballot.”)

Broadly speaking, the more crucial your voting district is—are you in a swing county in a swing state?—the more likely you are to see such tactics.

What to do, thankfully, is rather simple, and depends on what kind of intimidation you’re witnessing: If you see something that looks like intimidation but comes up shy of outright violence, or the threat of it, tell a poll worker immediately. If that doesn’t work, or if you’re witnessing actual violence or the threat of violence, call 911.

Here’s a few things to be aware of—and some details to look out for if you’re reporting intimidating behavior: 

  • Is there U.S. military on-site? Know that federal law prohibits the military and armed federal law enforcement officers from poll sites unless their presence is deemed necessary to “repel armed enemies of the United States.”

  • As for what to look out for: What are the people in question wearing? Are they carrying firearms—or other kinds of weapons? What kind? Are they wearing insignia, or carrying signs or flags? If it’s a group, do they seem to be working together?

  • It’s worth looking up your particular state’s laws about militias and armed groups near polling stations. Georgetown’s IPAC has compiled them here.

Here’s hoping your voting experience will be (or already has been!) hassle-free—and here’s hoping for some common-sense reforms—local, state, national—to make voting safer and easier for everyone.

Source: vogue.com