Voter Intimidation: What It Is, 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.

In 1940, Congress recognized that voter intimidation undermined the principles of democracy and passed a law criminalizing voter intimidation. This law said anybody caught intimidating or suppressing voter participation would get fined and imprisoned for up to one year.

Other voter intimidation-related federal laws include:

It's the job of election officials and law enforcement to ensure that voter intimidation doesn't happen. Voter intimidation can also be threatening voters at drop boxes or voter registration centers.

Is Voter Intimidation a Felony?

Voter intimidation is a federal crime and felony in the United States. Under the federal voter intimidation law, the government can sentence violators to up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

What Is Voter Intimidation?

Voter intimidation is using threats, coercion, or attempts to intimidate or interfere with a person's right to vote for their chosen candidate.

Voter intimidation is still a problem. It may be a growing problem. Voters have reported the following examples of voter intimidation tactics:

  • Physically blocking polling places or election offices
  • Using threatening language or brandishing weapons in or near a polling place
  • Yelling at people or calling them names while they are in line to vote
  • Disrupting or interrogating voters
  • Threatening election workers
  • 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, voters reported intimidation in recent elections in Texas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Arizona, Ohio, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Many cases went to court.

In Arizona, after the 2016 presidential election, officials with the Democratic Party complained that the Republican Party encouraged volunteers to follow people into the parking lots of polling stations to interrogate them, record their license plates, 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 firearm — concealed or exposed — into a polling place depends on state law. Many states and municipalities ban guns at polling places.

Most states and municipalities don't have express laws banning guns at polling places. But, many state and local laws ban guns on school and government premises. It would be illegal to carry a firearm into a polling station in those buildings.

Poll Watchers and Voter Intimidation

Poll watching is a way to ensure a fair election. Some believe it is a strategy of voter intimidation.

A political party, party nominee, or precinct party committee appoints specific people as poll watchers. They get training and must bring their certification with them. Poll watchers must register to vote in the state, county, or district they track.

Some states limit the number of poll watchers who can be in the polling building at one time.

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

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

What Should You Do if You Have Experienced Voter Intimidation?

If someone intimidates or harasses you while you're in line to vote or inside a polling station, you can call for immediate help. You can also report instances of poll workers intimidating other voters.

  • 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 someone has violated your voting rights, speak to a civil rights lawyer near you.

You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer's Help

Meeting with a civil rights lawyer can help you understand your rights and how to protect them.

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