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Voter Intimidation, Explained

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An election like no other. Pixabay, Public Domain

Poll watchers. Long lines. Rumors. Fake news.

This is an election like no other in American history. And there’s a lot on the line – no matter which side you’re standing on.

Yes, there’s plenty to worry about. But your safety and confidence as a voter should not be on that list. Intimidation or coercion at US polling places is a serious federal crime, whether it’s aimed at Republicans or Democrats.

But what constitutes voter intimidation? And what can you do about it?

What is it?

It’s normal for campaign workers to be present at polling places, helping voters understand the issues and candidates they support. They can’t set up near the entrance to the polling place, and while they may greet you and offer information, they aren’t allowed to pursue or harass you.

Voter intimidation is a different thing altogether. According to the US Department of Justice, “voter intimidation is conduct that is intended to compel prospective voters to vote against their preferences, or to not vote at all, through activity that is reasonably calculated to instill fear.”

These tactics can be subtle or obvious and include:

  • Disrupting voting lines
  • Blocking the polling entrance
  • Aggressively questioning voters about their eligibility (unless a lawful challenge by an appointed official)
  • Writing down license plate numbers
  • Following voters to, from or within the polling place
  • Spreading false information about voting fraud, requirements or criminal penalties
  • Confronting voters while wearing military or official-looking uniforms
  • Any kind of violent behavior: Verbal, physical or implied
  • Brandishing firearms or creating an intimidating display of them
  • Any violence outside the polling place
  • Weapons and words

Most states do allow people to carry guns at polling places, according to the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law Center. In fact, only the District of Columbia and five states have laws that explicitly forbid it (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas). Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons, but not open carry.

Although a gun may be visible at a polling place, it cannot be brandished (waved about, aimed or cocked, even in jest). Laws also prohibit guns to be arranged in any kind of threatening display.

“Even where guns are not explicitly prohibited, they may not be used to intimidate voters,” according to the ICAP. “Nor may armed groups of individuals patrol polling locations or otherwise engage in activities reserved for law enforcement or official state militias.”

Words used to intimidate are not a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, the ICAP said. “The First Amendment does not protect intimidation in the form of ‘true threats,’ where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence.”

What are poll watchers and what can they do?

No one can simply show up at a polling place, claim to be a “poll watcher,” and challenge your voting rights. Poll watchers are specially appointed to keep an eye out for orderly voting and must be officially identified with a badge.

But in some states, a poll watcher can challenge you to prove your voting eligibility. If this request comes from an official watcher, it doesn’t constitute voter intimidation. Details vary by state. And if you can’t provide the proof requested, you can still vote by filling out what is called a provisional ballot at the polls, instead of going into the booth. Your provisional ballot will be held separate from the general ballots and counted with the total after your eligibility has been determined.

What can I do if I feel intimidated?

Your right to vote, to vote privately, and to vote without intimidation or coercion is a constitutionally protected one. If you feel intimidated or threatened at a polling place, here’s what you can do.

  • If you sense an immediate threat, call 911 for emergency assistance.
  • Share your concerns with an official in the polling place.
  • Document the incident: what happened; where and when it happened; and whether it kept people from voting
  • Call the nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). 

For help in Spanish, call 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682); in Arabic, call 844-YALLA-US (844-915-5187); and Asian languages, call 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683).

A video in American Sign Language line is available at 301-818-VOTE (301-818-8683).

Need some basic 411 about voting? Got to Vote.org. You can find a polling place or a ballot drop box, learn about last-minute registration, track your ballot status, and even learn about the ballot issues.

 



 

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