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Voter Intimidation Is a Real Threat to the 2020 Race

Cases of intimidation at the polls, which have spiked in recent years, don’t bode well for the upcoming election

Credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images

LLast October, on the first day of Georgia’s early voting for midterm elections, the nonpartisan organization Black Voters Matter chartered a bus in Louisville, a rural, majority Black town, to transport 40 African American senior citizens from a community center to the polls. Jefferson County officials blocked the bus because they claimed the “event” was “political.”

Nine days later in the rural, majority Black town of Cordele, Georgia, a state trooper ticketed County Commissioner Royce Reeves, Sr., for temporarily parking his limousine on the wrong side of the road. Reeves, who is African American, was picking up voters in a limousine to take them to the polls. When confronted, Reeves immediately agreed to remedy his minor traffic violation. Despite this, minutes later, he was surrounded by nine law enforcement vehicles.

It should come as no surprise that voter intimidation is most prevalent in communities of color and precincts with a large number of limited English proficiency voters.

This kind of insidious harassment, which stretched last year from Georgia to Virginia, to North Carolina and to Texas, is known as voter intimidation, and is defined by federal law as behavior that “intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce” in such a way that it prevents a voter from voting or from voting for their preferred candidates. It should come as no surprise that voter intimidation is most prevalent in Black and other communities of color and precincts with a large number of limited English proficiency voters.

In recent years, the practice has spiked. Far more voters registered complaints of voter intimidation in 2016 than in 2012. In August 2016, even then-presidential candidate Donald Trump attempted to intimidate voters. At a rally, he pledged to dispatch police to polling locations to ensure voters didn’t cheat, and called for his supporters to do this same kind of “monitoring.”

CComplaints of voter intimidation plagued the 2018 midterm election. In Milwaukee, a fake flyer claimed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be patrolling polling places on Election Day. In Dallas County, Texas, harassers called voters waiting to cast their ballots “baby killers.” In other parts of the county, they spewed racist and sexist insults. In North Carolina, Representative Chris Malone allegedly asked a voter in line at the polls if she planned on voting twice.

Voter intimidation is especially prevalent in southern, rural, majority African American districts, according to LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “There are only a couple of people who run the city, and there is a white economic structure in those communities,” she says. This was certainly the case with the senior citizen bus in Louisville. Jefferson County’s chairman of the Board of Commissioners owns the only local furniture store, and as a result, “not a single senior wanted to speak on the record to the media about what happened,” Brown says. They feared retaliation from the store.

The same is true for other small businesses, where voters may have a line of credit, or where banks hold voters’ loans. Voters in rural communities are wary of the repercussions they may face if their voting offends the gatekeepers of these vital resources. “These are folks of influence. The fear is very real,” Brown says.

GGiven the current, extremely contentious political climate, a volatile president who threatens to remain in the Oval Office even if he loses, and last year’s highest voter turnout in 50 years, voter intimidation will likely reach epidemic proportions in 2020.

The groundswell of Democratic engagement over the last three years, which has rendered even historically safe GOP seats flippable, also makes 2020 especially ripe for voter intimidation. “These elections are getting really close,” says Emory University Professor Carol Anderson, author of One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Democracy. “The intimidation will increase. We’re going to see a doubling down.”

Claims of voter intimidation, however, face significant barriers.

First, compared to other types of voter suppression — roll purges, poll closures in low income minority communities, strict voter identification laws, and gerrymandering — unless it’s captured on video, voter intimidation receives little attention.

Second, contemporary manifestations of voter intimidation have an image problem. Civil Rights Era intimidation utilized physical violence, giving rise to widespread public outrage. “Today, it’s not in your face. It’s more subtle. We don’t see the scars,” Anderson says.

Ignorance is another factor. Poll workers aren’t adequately trained, so many of them don’t understand when their aggressive treatment rises to the level of voter intimidation.

Voter intimidation is also difficult to prove. Though civil rights organizations offer some guidelines, it’s largely subjective. “It comes down to a poll worker’s word against a voter’s word,” Anderson says.

What can voters do to prevent or stop intimidation?

“Know what the voting rules are better than the poll workers,” Anderson advises. This includes bringing the correct voter identification to the polls. Above all else, voters who experience or witness any intimidation should not leave the polling place, she adds. “Voters should call the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights or the ACLU to report it.”

Education about voting rights is key. But even armed with information, 2020 may prove to be a banner year for illegal voter intimidation. “Republicans have moved so far to the right, their views don’t resonate with an increasingly diverse America,” Anderson says. “My mother used to say ‘a dying mule kicks hardest.’”

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21.

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