Both parties have painted this year’s presidential election as the most important vote of our lives.
It’s also the most anxiety-ridden.
Our health is at risk because of the coronavirus. And the prospect of voter intimidation looms large, potentially threatening the integrity of a fair election process.
The most acute concerns center on the prospect that supporters of President Donald Trump might intimidate voters at polls on Election Day. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen," Trump said at the first presidential debate in September. "I am urging them to do it.”
Brittany Smalls, the Pennsylvania state coordinator for the nonpartisan national organization Black Voters Matter, understands the concern of her community. “It would make sense that people are afraid, or uneasy, because the things that have happened to us this year are unimaginable,” Smalls said. "But we can’t use that as an excuse. We have to get out and vote so we can save not only ourselves, but our democracy.”
Here are the answers to some questions about voter safety this year. Take this with you when you exercise your right to vote because “voting should be a celebration,” said Suzanne Almeida, interim director of the nonpartisan Common Cause Pennsylvania. “It should be a positive experience through which people can make their voices heard and feel like they are a beneficial part of our communities."
What is the difference between voter suppression and voter intimidation?
Voter suppression is when barriers are put it place to make it more difficult to vote, Almeida said. Voter intimidation is when people are scared to actually exercise their right to vote.
What does voter suppression look like?
Voter suppression tactics can include the long lines that can occur when polling locations are limited, or polls are closed early, said Donnell Drinks, the election protection coordinator for the Pennsylvania ACLU. However, the two main ways voter suppression is being felt in the 2020 election is through the movement of polling places — especially in poor and marginalized communities throughout the state — and the spread of misinformation.
Every time a polling place is moved to a new location, it affects the people who vote in that community because many don’t know how to find out where they are supposed to go to vote or they don’t have access to reliable transportation, said Drinks. This can especially affect older voters, people with disabilities, poor people, and those who can’t access good information.
“When you move polling places out of people’s comfort zones not only do you make it hard for people to get there, but you also add a level of intimidation to the process,” Drinks said. “People who are intimidated by change are more likely to feel inadequate. So now you’ve created a mental intimidation. And considering the year we’ve had — especially marginalized people — they’d rather skip the whole process than feel shame."
Moving polling places impacts those who don’t have adequate information, but misinformation also has the power to suppress votes. Almeida pointed to the false narrative around rampant voter fraud — academic studies have repeatedly found no evidence of significant fraud — that has the potential of discouraging people from voting altogether or of not trusting the results.
The solution: Make a plan.
Prepare. Research your options. Will you vote by mail? Will you vote early at a satellite office? Or will you vote on Election Day? If you plan to pull the lever in your precinct on Nov. 3, consult the PA Voter Services Web Site to find your polling place.
What does voter intimidation look like?
Voter intimidation can range from having an unwanted conversation with someone standing outside of the polls, to questioning voters about their citizenship, to forcefully stopping someone from going inside and voting, explained Vic Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania ACLU. “That is clearly intimidation and it’s prohibited by federal civil rights laws,” Walczak said.
If you think intimidation can be a possibility in your precinct, if possible, don’t go to the polls alone. “From day one, I’ve always advocated going to vote in a buddy system, but because of the threat of voter intimidation, it’s even more important this year,” Drinks said. “Not only by voting with someone else you inspire people to engage in the process, going to vote in multiples gives you an extra bit of safety assurances.”
The presence of law enforcement can feel intimidating for and deter some people from voting, especially in historically over-policed communities. So Pennsylvania law is clear that police can’t be within 100 feet of a polling place unless called there to respond to a specific situation.
When it comes to rumors of armed Trump supporters watching the polls, the ACLU is looking at what to do if armed groups assemble at or near polling places, and whether it is or isn’t considered illegal behavior. “Because of the concern about intimidation or potential violence," Walczak said, “we are researching where the line of intimidation is with respect to the presence of weapons." But don’t let the fear that a group might be present prevent you from voting.
What are poll watchers allowed, and not allowed, to do?
Poll watchers, volunteers who work for political parties and campaigns, must be certified by the County Board of Elections. They also must remain a safe and respectful distance from the polls.
Poll watchers can:
Keep a list of voters in the district he or she is watching.
Challenge a voter’s identity, continued residence in the election district, or his or her qualifications as an eligible voter.
Direct challenges to the judge of elections. (These challenges cannot be based on race, national origin, appearance, surname, language, religion, or other characteristic not relevant to the qualifications to vote.)
Poll watchers can’t:
Interfere with or impinge on the orderly process of voting.
Engage in electioneering — soliciting votes, posting or displaying written or printed campaign materials, and handing out pamphlets or other campaign paraphernalia — within 10 feet of the entrance of the polling place.
What should I do if I feel intimidated at the polls or I see someone being intimidated?
Know your rights. If you are registered to to vote, you have the right to cast a ballot and it is illegal for anyone to intimidate and harass you during the process, Almeida said. Don’t engage with those who are verbally harassing you, just keep your head up and march straight into the polls.
Report the information to your poll worker. Poll workers — not to be confused with poll watchers — check people in, set up the machines, and run the election. Many have been trained in de-escalating situations. It is their responsibility to make sure the voting processes go smoothly.
If you feel your life is in danger, do not confront the agitator. Step out of line and call 911.
Then call one of the following hotline numbers. You will likely get a live person and the lines will be open for 24 hours on Election Day.
Philadelphia District Attorney: 215-686-9641
Pennsylvania Department of State: 1-877-868-3772
Election Protection: 1-866-866-687-8683
If I call one of these numbers, will someone respond immediately?
Real talk: The response time might be long, but someone will show up and they will be trained in de-escalation tactics and make sure you will be able to vote safely, escorting you through the process, Drinks said.
Most importantly, no matter how intimidated you might be, don’t leave the polls without voting. “Now is not the time to give up,” Drinks said. “If you give up, the people who are actively trying to thwart our election process will win.”
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.