Barriers to the Ballot Box

Published — October 15, 2020

Election officials prepare for voter intimidation threat

Shawn Walton, 34, of Atlanta, waits in a line to vote early at the State Farm Arena on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

This article was published in partnership with Stateline.


Election officials across the country have begun reviewing security plans at early and Election Day voting sites, strengthening ties with local law enforcement and training poll workers to prepare for voter intimidation tactics.

Even before the presidential debate, when President Donald Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Michelle Wilcox, the director of elections in Auglaize County, Ohio, was concerned about disruptions at the polls this year. 

The rural county near the Indiana border seems like an unlikely candidate for trouble. It has about 32,500 voters, two-thirds of whom are registered as unaffiliated and another fourth of whom are Republican. The county seat, Wapakoneta, is best known as the hometown of astronaut Neil Armstrong. But even in this small rural county, Wilcox said, she will be prepared.

For the first time, she brought in the sheriff to help train poll workers. Wilcox said she and the sheriff talked to poll workers about situations that could come up and how to handle them. For example, she said, the sheriff would get involved in a case of disorderly conduct but is “not the arresting authority if somebody doesn’t have a mask on.”   

“Our poll workers listened very intently,” she said. “They know that there may be some issues, so they wanted to know.”

Since the Sept. 29 presidential debate, there has been surging concern over the prospect of voter harassment at the polls. But prior to Trump’s poll-watching invitation to a national television audience, there were incidents. 

Philadelphia officials last month turned away a group of poll watchers sent by the Trump campaign to satellite election sites, where they are not permitted entry under Pennsylvania law. In Virginia, Trump supporters temporarily blocked an entrance to an early voting site last month, forcing officials to offer voters escorts to cast ballots. And in Minnesota, a private security company is recruiting former military members to guard polling places, alarming election officials with the prospect of unofficial armed guards who could intimidate or harass voters. Many voting experts say these actions are not legal.

Supporters of President Donald Trump raise banners at a polling place in Virginia. Some called it voter intimidation.
Supporters of President Donald Trump raise banners at an early polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia, in September. (Courtesy of Anthony Tilghman via Twitter)

Poll watching or poll observing has long been a way for parties and outside groups to monitor voting, but such observers typically have to be certified in advance, and detailed rules vary from state to state

Pennsylvania last week issued updated guidance. In late September, the Ohio secretary of state’s office put out a new training video on de-escalation at the polls. North Carolina put out new guidance to county election boards on allowable conduct. “It is not appropriate or permissible for law enforcement or private security to be stationed at a voting place,” the North Carolina memo warns in bolded text.

At the same time, election officials are trying to reassure worried voters that polling places will be safe. 

“We have a strict and strong plan of protection in place, but we’re also being very, very mindful of making sure no voter is fearful of showing up and communicating to them we’ve got this,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, in response to a question during a press call last week. “We’ll protect them, we’ll protect their right to vote and we’ll use every resource and tool at our disposal in order to do so.”

On a separate press call, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, pointed out state law prohibits impeding voters or poll workers. “We will not in any way tolerate any kind of intimidation or suppression,” he said. “The law in Ohio is very clear.”

Election officials are stressing buffer zones that prohibit electioneering within a certain distance of polling places, depending on the state. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, based at the Georgetown University Law Center, issued fact sheets for each state explaining what to do if armed individuals are near a polling site.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a D.C.-based voting rights group, said the idea of armed people at the polls is an “explosive, dangerous and toxic situation.” She is especially concerned about communities with large numbers of voters of color. 

The Lawyers’ Committee has recruited more than 21,000 lawyers for its election protection efforts this year, she said.

Joe Gloria, the registrar of voters in Clark County, Nevada, home to more than 70% of the state’s registered voters, said he expects problems. “We’re always worried about any type of intimidation at the polls and we’ve always had plans in place to address that. However, this election cycle is unique,” he said. “The indication is most of our planning will have to be put into place at some point.”

Gloria has doubled the number of roving workers available to visit voting sites this year, he said, so each can get to a polling place within 10 or 15 minutes. 

Many states and counties typically have task forces to allow election officials to coordinate with local governments and law enforcement, and that process is underway. In Fulton County, Georgia, home to Atlanta, “a lot of people are concerned about election security,” Rick Barron, the county’s registration and elections director, told his board during a meeting last week. Barron said the county has formed a steering committee that will be briefed by the FBI in coming weeks, and “we are in the risk assessment phase right now.” 

“Atlanta is a civil rights cradle,” said Aaron Johnson, a Democratic member of the county elections board, in a separate interview. “We have people here in Fulton County that take the right to vote very seriously. Our residents are quite adamant about voting and I don’t think they would take too kindly to voter intimidation at any level from anyone.”

Rural voters may be more vulnerable to harassment because “issues can pop up and they’re not going to be as documented,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, who said she is monitoring efforts by groups in north and south Georgia to recruit potentially armed “concerned citizens” to watch the polls.

States that allow the open carrying of weapons will also have to navigate competing legal rights, since intimidation may depend on the eye of the beholder. In Nevada, for example, rural locations may be more inclined to allow firearms, and every case is different, state Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. But the bottom line, he said, is “courts have recognized the right to show up at a polling site and vote free from harassment and intimidation.”

The Trump campaign has set a goal of recruiting 50,000 poll watchers and has repeatedly said they will abide by the law. “Poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out,” said Thea McDonald, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, in an emailed statement.

The Biden campaign has promised “the largest voter protection program in history,” recruiting at least 600 voting rights lawyers and 10,000 volunteers to monitor the polls.

Trump’s call for supporters to turn out at the polls comes on the heels of months of his falsehoods about the integrity of the election and a wide-ranging legal push by his campaign and surrogates aimed at making voting less accessible. 

This also is the first presidential election in four decades in which the Republican National Committee can send poll watchers. Two years ago, a federal court lifted a 1982 consent decree that stemmed from the national party sending off-duty police officers to monitor poll locations in New Jersey cities, which critics said intimidated voters of color. The decree didn’t prohibit campaigns or state parties from sending observers to the polls, but the RNC couldn’t coordinate the effort. Mandi Merritt, a GOP spokesperson, said volunteers now undergo “rigorous” training and are not there to intimidate.

Some voting rights advocates add a note of caution, however. Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, wants voters to be aware of the issue and know to notify poll workers if they feel intimidated, but she worries they may feel discouraged to vote if they fear widespread intimidation or violence.

“We have to make sure that as we’re drawing attention to a problem that we’re not contributing to the problem,” she said. Almeida’s team recruited 2,000 poll monitors in the Keystone State and has run worst-case scenarios for months, focusing efforts on protecting individual voters at as many polling locations as possible.

Ford, the Nevada attorney general, drew national notice when he responded to Trump’s debate comments by tweeting that the president “wasn’t talking about poll watching. He was talking about voter intimidation. FYI — voter intimidation is illegal in Nevada. Believe me when I say it: You do it, and you will be prosecuted.”

Asked about the tweet, he said he wanted to make it clear voter intimidation won’t be tolerated in Nevada. “I’m a Black man from the South,” Ford said, adding, “I know what voter intimidation looks like.”

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