During the 2020 election season, many voters were concerned about the possibility of encountering voter intimidation at the polls. As voters across the country head to the polls for the 2022 midterm elections, these concerns may be on voters’ minds again.
Thankfully though, what voters are most likely to see at their polling places in the coming weeks are friendly election workers and fellow engaged citizens. Despite the long, dark history of “poll watching,” and other polling place harassment in this country, voter intimidation is relatively rare.
Even so, it is important to remember that voting is a right and all voters are protected from intimidation as they cast their ballots. Whether you’re voting in-person, by mail or via election dropbox, you should never be made to feel unsafe or intimidated while exercising your freedom to vote.
Voter intimidation is against the law. You shouldn't hesitate to speak up and seek help if something doesn’t feel right. Voting should be stress-free. If something feels off, trust your gut. There are resources available to help you and answer your questions.
Voter Intimidation Is Illegal. But What Is It and How Can I Recognize It?
Voter intimidation is a federal crime. Federal law says it is illegal to “intimidate, threaten, or 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.”
Several state laws also protect voters from intimidation. In 2020, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Yale Law School’s Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic prepared state-specific resources for voter protection in seven states.
Some examples of voter intimidation include:
Aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record or other qualifications to vote.
Physically blocking polling places.
Using threatening language in or near a polling place.
Disrupting, following or interrogating voters.
Voter intimidation can also take the form of disinformation about voter requirements or voting rules. Remember, you do not need to speak English to vote in any state and you do not need to pass a test to vote in any state.
Always refer to trusted sources when researching when and how to vote. Many states require voters to present a photo ID when voting but not all. To find out what the voting requirements are in your state, consult your state or local election officials.
Another important reminder: Most states restore voting rights for citizens with past felony convictions after they have completed their sentences. Have a past felony conviction and not sure if you’re eligible to vote? Visit our website RestoreYourVote.org to see if you’re able to have your rights restored and register to vote.
What Should I Do If I Think I’m Encountering or Witnessing Voter Intimidation?
If you think you’re encountering or witnessing voter intimidation, call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to get voting help from a trained election protection volunteer. They are there to help. For non-English speakers, there are some language-specific options available.
If you feel safe doing so, try to de-escalate the situation.
You should also immediately report anything suspicious or intimidating to your local election official. You can find your state or local election office’s website here. Some states may have voter intimidation hotlines in place.
Remember voter intimidation is against the law, and it should not be tolerated. Local election officials and law enforcement have a responsibility to protect voters from voter intimidation of any kind. Election officials are empowered to maintain peace and safety at their polling locations.
You can also call the U.S. Department of Justice voting rights hotline at 1-800-253-3931.
If you’re encountering violence, you may choose to call 911. It’s important to note that police officers are subject to restrictions at polling locations and don’t have the right to interfere with lawful voting.
Additionally, if you know you’re eligible and registered to vote but are being harassed about your qualifications, many states permit voters to sign a sworn, legal statement and proceed to vote. Check to see if this is an option in your state. Even if an incident occurs, voters should still be encouraged to show up and vote. Voting is a right, and voters should exercise it.
“Poll Watching” and Voter Intimidation Have a Long, Dark History
Partisan poll watching has long been used to intimidate voters who have a right to vote without being harassed, and its history is filled with examples of racism and overt partisan attempts to illegally sway elections.
It has a history rooted in Jim Crow when Black Americans were systematically disenfranchised from exercising their right to vote.
Voter intimidation is not limited by geography. As a People For the American Way-NAACP report states, “[voter intimidation] takes place from California to New York, Texas to Illinois. It is not the province of a single political party.” The report provides numerous examples of voter intimidation in localities across the country throughout past decades.
Most states specify legal qualifications and regulations for partisan poll watchers. Following the 2020 elections, however, several states enacted laws that expand the power of partisan poll watchers, providing them with more leverage to potentially intimidate and harass voters.
In Texas, for example, partisan poll watchers are granted “free movement" around voting facilities, and anyone who knowingly obstructs a poll watcher’s view commits a legal offense. Even so, they never have the right to intimidate voters.
It’s important to note that election observers can be nonpartisan, and some are credible. Many credible nonpartisan observers do help ensure accountability and election integrity without regard to political outcome. Credible poll watchers will adhere to local and national voting laws and should not be intimidating you or preventing you from exercising your fundamental right to vote.
What Else Should I Know?
Trust your gut. Call and report anything that does not feel right. We have a duty as Americans to ensure that every voter can exercise their freedom to vote without experiencing intimidation.
Need more info? Check out CLC’s DemocracyU toolkit to learn more about protecting voters from intimidation, including state-specific resources.