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Protect Your Vote: What to do if you see voter intimidation at the polls

Voter intimidation is, unfortunately, not new to America and has historically targeted Black communities, immigrants and communities of color in an illegal effort to deter them from exercising their constitutional right to vote. In this year’s highly polarized climate and tensions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the danger is real that far-right extremists, militias and other armed vigilantes may appear at polling sites, especially in battleground states.

First, it is important to know that federal and state laws make voter intimidation illegal. And this year, a range of additional legal support systems are in place to ensure that every voter can exercise their right to cast a ballot free from harassment and coercion.

Right-wing activists and self-styled militias mobilized first this year as part of anti-lockdown protests and later in response to the nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, taking to the streets in an effort to counter the racial justice advocates, antifascists and leftists they consider political adversaries. For many in the far right, the contest taking place at the polls is simply a continuation of the one they’ve been carrying out in the streets: It’s an effort to take a stand against groups they see as domestic enemies and impose their own version of “order.”

Far-right extremists are taking to heart Trump’s assertion that the election will be “the most rigged election in history” – an unfounded claim that has nevertheless been widely promoted by right-wing media. Trump has urged his supporters to “go to the polls and watch very carefully.” His campaign has even convened an “army” of his most fervent supporters to surveil polling places. Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and one of his top communication officials, Michael Caputo, warned, “When Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin.”

Throughout his presidency, Trump has made statements criticized as expressing approval of far right activists, like his comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. More recently at the first presidential debate, Trump did not accept an opportunity to condemn white supremacy clearly and instead told the Proud Boys, a hate group, to “stand back and stand by.” To the Proud Boys, these words came as a call to arms. “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA … well sir! we’re ready,” one prominent member of the group posted on a social media account.

Just days before Trump’s comments at the debate, Proud Boys members in Oregon had signaled their intention to monitor the election process there. Many other extremist groups have expressed their intention to do the same at their polling places or offer support to the president in other ways. “We’ll go wherever we’re needed. Wherever that flashpoint may be, we’ll be there with sufficient arms, counsel and provisions,” Chris Hill of the militia group Georgia Three Percent Security Force told a journalist. “If there’s evidence that the vote was rigged and manipulated,” he said, “I’d consider that grounds for open rebellion.”  

Extremists’ plans to “monitor” the polls are also evidence of a continuing embrace of vigilantism within the far right. The Oath Keepers, an antigovernment militia group that has indicated its members will go “undercover” to monitor the polls and look “for indicators that they’ve got people who aren’t U.S. citizens voting,” appear to want to act as law enforcement themselves. Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder, said the police have been too “hands off” and that he is “not confident the police will do their job” on Election Day.

Historically, voter intimidation at a polling place has been rare – and it’s a crime.  Despite their attempts to deputize themselves as Election Day police, every state prohibits private, unauthorized militia groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters from engaging in law enforcement activities.  

On November 3, Election Day, and in states offering early voting, the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group is working in coalition with an unprecedented number of organizing, legal and advocacy groups, as well as election officials at the local and state level to protect your right to cast a ballot free of interference or intimidation. If you experience voter intimidation – words or actions that make you apprehensive about voting – notify the election officials at that polling place. Election officials are obligated to prevent intimidation and unauthorized challenges to your right to vote.

Examples of illegal voter intimidation include:

  • Violent behavior inside or outside of a polling place, including brandishing of firearms.
  • Disrupting voting lines, harassing voters in line or blocking the entrance to a polling place.
  • Threats of false criminal prosecution or adverse economic or reputational harm for voting.

If it is safe to do so, ensure you are at a safe distance from the threat and document what you saw or experienced – what happened, when and where – with pictures/video and as much detail as possible about what was said and done.

Concerned voters should immediately call the national, nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline at (866) OUR-VOTE [(866) 687-8683], operated by trained election law experts from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. For Spanish speakers, the number is (888) VE-Y-VOTA [(888) 839-8682], and the number for Asian language speakers is (888) API-VOTE (888) 274-8683]. A video call number for American Sign Language is available at (301) 818-VOTE [(301) 818-8683].

The SPLC would also like to hear about your experience voting in the 2020 election. If you encounter intimidation, harassment or other issues while casting your ballot, please let us know using the Tell Us Your Voting Story page.

In this most important election, we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated or deterred from voting. To avoid the Election Day polling place rush, in many locales, voters can vote by mail, drop their ballots off at the local election office or in an approved, secured drop box, or choose in-person early voting. 

We know that our voice and our vote matters. The SPLC stands with voters and will work to ensure a free and fair election.

Photo by Bloomberg/Getty Images​