Congratulations! After what’s seemed like a decades-long campaign season, we’ve finally reached Election Day. But with news of voter intimidation at the polls—including direct threats against people of color—you may be wondering how to keep yourself, and your ballot, safe.
Have no fear, dear voter. We put together a handy guide on voter intimidation that explains what it is (and isn’t), and who you can report it to. We also compiled information on your state’s particular voting rules, and how to make sure no one interferes with your hard-earned right to vote.
What is voter intimidation?
Voter intimidation is prohibited under state and federal law, which says no person “shall intimidate, threaten, coerce…any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose.” These laws are applied differently, depending on the state; while some agree that violent or physical threats are illegal, what constitutes non-violent intimidation varies. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “aggressively questioning” another voter about their criminal record or citizenship, falsely claiming to be an elections official, and spreading incorrect information about voter requirements all constitute intimidation.
Although much of the concern around voter intimidation centers on Trump’s most fervent supporters, poll observers and workers may also—knowingly or unknowingly—engage in inappropriate or threatening behavior. In the past, this has included telling voters they couldn’t cast a ballot unless they spoke English and videotaping voters who needed physical assistance—both of which are illegal.
Hot spots for intimidation
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is encouraging his supporters to watch the polls in swing states, particularly those that are considered Democratic strongholds with large minority populations. Ohio is one hot bed, with a local man telling the Boston Globe that he would racially profile Mexicans, Syrians, and “people who can’t speak American”). Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania (particularly Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs), and North Carolina (where thousands of voters were illegally purged from voter registries) are also areas of concern.
And while the Department of Justice says it’ll be standing at the ready to stop voter intimidation, some fear that its observers may not have access to at-risk polling sites.
How to protect yourself
First, know what’s legal and illegal when it comes to voting in your state. Be wary of misinformation, and aware of the most common voter scams in this election cycle, such as texting your vote. Also, report if you see any of these scams on social media (Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently took on one account that was pushing false voter information).
“In the event that there's intimidation going on at the polling place…what we say is 'don't engage with the person trying to intimidate you,’” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for equal rights for minority groups.
According to the ACLU’s guidelines on voter intimidation, in many states, private citizens and official poll observers aren’t allowed to interact directly with voters. If they have suspicions about your eligibility, they must report it to an official poll worker. Self-designated or unofficial poll observers aren’t allowed inside a polling place. While laws vary by state, if someone challenges your qualifications to vote, you can generally resolve the issue and cast a regular ballot by signing a sworn statement that says you fulfill your state’s requirements. If you’re not on the list of registered voters, you can fill out a provisional ballot, which all voters are entitled to.
Remember: Don’t let anyone influence you into doing something illegal, like videotaping voters at a polling place, and avoid getting physical with someone who tries to intimidate or threaten you. Instead, alert an official poll worker, and consult our list of resources for reporting voter intimidation and interference at the bottom of this post.
Voting rules you should know
Check out the rules for voting in your state, here. We’ve listed some notable ones, below:
- Poll observers can be classified as domestic observers, partisan observers (the kind that Trump is recruiting), or international observers. Partisan observers, also called poll watchers, make sure their preferred party isn’t being disadvantaged by any voting practices or irregularities. Domestic and international observers, however, are trained to watch the elections, with domestic observers working to protect the integrity of the process and international observers assessing voting procedures.
- Most states allow private citizens to challenge another’s right to vote, but they must give a valid reason to a poll worker for doing so; for instance, the voter isn’t a U.S. citizen or doesn’t reside in that county. Inability to speak English or being a particular race aren’t valid reasons for challenging someone’s vote. An election official can ask voters questions to affirm their eligibility, and get them to sign an affidavit confirming their identity. Afterwards, they should be allowed to cast their ballot.
In Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming, however, it’s illegal for private citizens to challenge another’s right to vote.
- Voter-ID requirements vary from state to state, but it’s illegal for anyone—poll observer, poll worker, or private citizen—to ask you to prove your citizenship if you’ve already supplied the necessary documents. If a poll worker still doubts your identity, you have the right to sign an affidavit that declares you are who you say you are, after which you can cast your ballot. Arrive ready, and look up your state’s voter ID requirements, here.
- Every polling place has a “buffer zone” that prevents partisans from influencing voters’ decisions. These zones differ depending on the state, but range from 30 feet from a polling entrance in Alabama to 200 feet in Alaska. Look up your state’s buffer-zone rules, here.
- While states have different laws on taking photos and videos at polling places, the DOJ ruled in the case of Alabama and Mississippi that filming voters can qualify as intimidation, especially if specific kinds of voters seem to be targeted. This is exactly what Trump support group Vote Protectors has vowed to do, along with creating fake ID badges and conducting fake exit polls—all very illegal. Find your state’s exact stance on photos and videos, here.
- Voters with limited English-language ability are especially vulnerable to intimidation and misinformation. In recent elections, Asian Americans and Latinx voters reported a number of barriers and discriminatory practices that interfered with their votes, including insufficient English-language assistance at the polls. Voters with limited English proficiency are allowed to have a translator help them fill out their ballot, as long as he or she isn’t their employer or a union representative; referenced in Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, it’s a federally protected right.
- There are already reports of voters feeling intimidated by Trump supporters carrying firearms, and there's quite a bit of ambiguity as to how legal it is. Generally, you can't bring guns to polling places in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Carolina, conceal-carry is prohibited. But in North Carolina and Virginia—both swing states this election—it’s legal for someone to carry a firearm at a polling place if they have a permit. Their possession of a firearm alone, then, won’t likely be considered intimidation. But if the person gestures at or speaks to you in a way you deem threatening, or obstructs your path to and from the polls, report the incident immediately or call one of the following hotlines.
- 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683) is run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is dedicated to voter protection.
- 1-800-253-3931 is the Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline, also dedicated to protect voters against any discrimination.
- 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (1-888-839-8682) is run by NALEO Educational Fund, which provides bilingual English-Spanish assistance.
- 1-888-API-VOTE (1-888-273-8683) is run by APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. They provide voting information and assistance in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, and Vietnamese.
- 1-844-418-1682 is run by the Arab American Institute, and will respond to questions and concerns from the Arab-American community on Election Day.
- For trans voters, The National Center for Transgender Equality put together a checklist of what you need to bring to be eligible to vote in your state. It includes a section you can give to poll workers, which details what’s legal and illegal when administering ballots to trans voters. For example, “gender discrepancies on an ID are not a valid reason to deny a regular ballot.”