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How to Report Voter Intimidation, and How to Spot It

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Well before Election Day, voters in Texas and North Carolina had already started reporting facing harassment.

The federal government prohibits such acts of intimidation, but what that entails isn’t always clear. In some cases, it can mean threats of violence. In others, it can be attempts at coercion. This kind of harassment may be uncommon, but voting rights advocates say voters should be vigilant.

“I would say to people, ‘Use your gut,’” said Virginia Kase, the chief executive of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which encourages democratic participation. “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”

[Read our tips on how to avoid being turned away at the polls]

Here’s a brief guide to voter intimidation and what to do about it.

Anyone who tries to “intimidate, threaten, or coerce” individuals to interfere with their right to vote can face up to a year in prison under the federal law against voter intimidation. And such intimidation can take many forms.

“It’s a lot easier to explain what it is by general examples, because it’s pretty amorphous,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “There’s not a lot of specific case law around this.”

According to Ms. Lakin, intimidation can include aggressive questioning about people’s qualifications to vote, including their citizenship status, criminal record or residency requirements.

Spreading false information or posing as an election official can also cross the line, she said, as can unreasonable requests for forms of identification that aren’t required by law.

[Here are some tips for spotting and avoiding false information.]

Intimidation can also include “questioning, challenging, photographing or videotaping” a person at a polling site, “especially under the guise of uncovering illegal voting,” according to the office of the United States attorney in Arizona.

Voting rights advocates worry that certain groups are more likely than others to face intimidation.

Nonnative English speakers, for example, are frequently reported by people who prejudiciously assume them to be noncitizens, Ms. Lakin said. Such voters are allowed to bring translators into the voting booth as long as the translators do not employ the voters or represent them in a union.

Voters in jurisdictions with close races may also be more likely to encounter intimidation, she said. That goes as well for people of color, particularly those in areas with a history of intimidation and discrimination against nonwhite voters.

[Make sense of the people, issues and ideas shaping the 2018 elections with our new politics newsletter.]

Although intimidation is prohibited, voters may still find their qualifications challenged by certified poll monitors in some states.

The monitors are typically allowed inside the polling place, but their presence is often regulated with rules governing their training, numbers and authority, according to the A.C.L.U. In many states, they may inspect polling books and challenge the qualifications of voters, but with limits.

[Read more about how, when and where to vote here.]

The monitors are usually kept at a distance from the voting booth and are not allowed to interact directly with voters.

More generally, nearly every state empowers private citizens to challenge voter eligibility on or before Election Day, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

In many states, voters whose qualifications are challenged may still cast regular ballots if they give a sworn statement to a poll worker that they meet the qualifications, according to the A.C.L.U. In virtually all cases, voters may also request a provisional ballot.

Anyone threatened with violence should call 911. Poll workers, the local authorities and local and state election officials may also be able to help immediately address intimidation, provided they are not culpable themselves.

While the federal government is not the ally of voting rights advocates that it was during the Obama administration, individuals may report intimidation by filing voting complaints with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by calling 800-253-3931, emailing voting.section@usdoj.gov or by submitting an online form. The Justic Department is also proactively monitoring elections in 35 jurisdictions in 19 states.

Voters can also report intimidation and get advice from a series of numbers associated with the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition. The main number, 866-OUR-VOTE, is administered by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The coalition also has lines available for Spanish-speaking, Arabic-speaking and Asian-American voters.


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