What To Do if You Encounter Voter Intimidation

Voters line up along a concrete ramp outside a propped open door with a "Vote Here" sign on it.
Voters wait in line outside a polling place in Boston, MA. Photo by Casey Atkins/Campaign Legal Center.

You have a right to vote. Whenever you go to vote in-person or submit a mail-in ballot (including via an election dropbox), you shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe or intimidated while exercising your fundamental rights. Your voice and your vote matter. 

Voter intimidation is against the law. It's important to know that 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. 

Here’s more information about voter intimidation and how to get help: 

Voter Intimidation Is Against the Law. What Is It? And How Can You 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.”

Many state laws protect voters from intimidation, too. Campaign Legal Center and Yale Law School’s Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic have prepared state-specific resources for voter protection in seven states.

The ACLU provides a list of examples of voter intimidation. Some examples of voter intimidation include: 

  • Aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record or other qualifications to vote. 

  • Aggressively questioning voters about their political choices. 

  • Spreading false information about voter requirements. 

  • Falsely representing oneself as an election official. 

  • Physically blocking polling places. 

  • Displaying false or misleading signs about voter fraud and related criminal penalties. 

  • 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.

  • Photographing or videotaping voters without permission or in a harassing manner.

  • Other forms of harassment, particularly harassment targeting non-English speakers and voters of color. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona has similarly listed examples of voter intimidation: “For example, persons attempting to interrupt or intimidate voters by questioning, challenging, photographing or videotaping them at polling places – especially under the guise of uncovering illegal voting – may be violating federal voting rights law.” 

During the era of COVID-19 specifically, intentionally misinforming a potential voter about the coronavirus or laws and ordinances related to the coronavirus in order to discourage or intimidate them from voting is a felony. 

Here are some important reminders from the ACLU: You do not need to speak English to vote, in any state. You do not need to pass a test to vote, in any state. Many states require voters to present a photo ID when voting, but not all.  

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 wondering if you’re eligible to vote? Visit our website RestoreYourVote.org to see if you’re able to have your rights restored and able to register to vote. 

What Should You Do If You Think You’re 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 report anything suspicious or intimidating to your local election official, immediately. Visit USA.gov to find your state or local election office’s website. 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 are encountering violence, you may choose to call 911. It’s important to note that police officers are subject to restrictions at polling locations and do not have the right to interfere with lawful voting. 

Additionally, if you know you are 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 (with thanks to the ACLU).

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 littered 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,” and 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. 

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 You Know?

The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center has created fact sheets for all 50 states explaining the laws barring unauthorized private militia groups and what to do if groups of armed individuals are near a polling place or voter registration drive. 

Additionally, the Brennan Center for Justice has also created a resource explaining the strict limits on government and private actors when it comes to interfering at the polls.

Remember: check your gut, and call and report anything that does not feel right. We have a duty as Americans to ensure that every voter can cast a vote free from intimidation. 

Bryan is an executive communications strategist at CLC.
Protecting Voters from Intimidation, State-By-State

More information for voters and election officials on how the law protects them