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Voter Intimidation: What Is It and What to Do

The history of voting in America is full of examples of voter suppression and voter intimidation. By 1940, voter suppression campaigns were so successful that only 3% of eligible African-Americans in the South were registered to vote.

Congress recognized that voter intimidation undermined the principles of democracy and in 1940 passed a law criminalizing voter intimidation. Other voter intimidation-related laws include:

Is Voter Intimidation a Felony?

Yes. A person found guilty of violating the federal voter intimidation law could be sentenced to up to one year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine.

What Is Voter Intimidation?

Voter intimidation is defined under the law as the use of threats, coercion, or attempts to intimidate for the purpose of interfering with the right of another person to vote or to vote for the person of their choosing.

Voter intimidation is still a problem today. In fact, it may be a growing problem. Voters have reported these and other intimidation tactics:

  • Physically blocking polling places
  • Using threatening language in or near a polling place
  • Yelling at people or calling people names while they are in line to vote
  • Disrupting or interrogating voters
  • Looking over people's shoulders while they are voting
  • Questioning voters about their political choices, citizenship status, or criminal record
  • Displaying false or misleading signage
  • Spreading false information about voting requirements and procedures

According to an article in The Atlantic, voter intimidation was reported in recent elections in Texas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Arizona, Ohio, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Numerous cases went to court.

In Arizona, after the 2016 election, officials with the Democratic Party complained that the Republican Party was encouraging its volunteers to follow people into the parking lots of polling station to interrogate them, record their license plate, and call 911 to report them for committing a felony by voting.

Guns at Polling Places: Is It Voter Intimidation?

While many people find the sight of guns threatening, the legality of bringing a gun — concealed or exposed — into a polling place depends on what state and, in some cases, municipality you are in. There are around a dozen states and numerous municipalities throughout the country that ban guns at polling places.

Most states and municipalities do not have express laws banning guns at polling places. However, many state and local laws ban guns on school and government premises, so it would be illegal to carry a gun into a polling station in those buildings.

Poll Watchers and Voter Intimidation

Poll watching in the interest of ensuring a fair election is a permitted activity, though some believe it is a strategy intended to be a form of voter intimidation.

Poll watchers are appointed by a political party, a nominee, or a precinct party committee (it varies by state). They receive training and are required to bring their certification paperwork with them. Poll watchers must be registered voters in the state, county, or district they are monitoring. Some states limit the number of poll watchers, per candidate or by party, who can be in the polling building at the same time.

In many states, poll watchers can inspect the signature rosters. They can observe vote counting activity. In some states, a poll watcher can challenge a voter's right to vote. In other states, only poll workers may challenge a voter.

Unofficial, unappointed poll watchers are not permitted inside polling places.

Learn more about the rules in each state regarding poll watchers and voter challenges at the National Association of Secretaries of State.

What Should You Do If You Have Experienced Voter Intimidation?

If you were intimidated or harassed while waiting in line to vote or while inside a polling station — or you observed other people being intimidated or harassed — you can call for immediate help.

  • First, notify a poll worker of the intimidation tactic you observed. Talk to the election supervisor or call your state Board of Elections to report the activity. You can also report it to the Elections Commissioner.
  • You can report intimidation to the Election Protection Hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE. To report in Spanish, call 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA.
  • You can also call the U.S. Department of Justice voting rights hotline at 1-800-253-3931.
  • You can report voter intimidation to your local police.

If you believe your voting rights were violated — or the rights of a specific group of people — speak to a civil rights lawyer in your area.

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