Voter intimidation reports pour in to elections watchdog

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Election Day isn't until Nov. 8, but already an elections watchdog has received more than 50,000 calls about voter suppression and intimidation.

At least one woman with a bullhorn confronted and yelled at voters arriving at an early voting site in West Palm Beach last week. Sheriff's deputies asked the woman to move – but not before some voters left without casting their ballots.

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Louis Brooks (L), talks with Henry Wilder with the Thomaston-Upson County Branch of the NAACP in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016. 
Martin Luther King Drive that runs through Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016.
Upson County Chairman of the Board of Elections Robert Haney at the Administrations building in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016. 
A resident walks to a store in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016. 
George Smith IV (L) walks with Henry Wilder with the Thomaston-Upson County Branch of the NAACP in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016.
Henry Wilder with the Thomaston-Upson County Branch of the NAACP in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016. 
Frank Sanders walks through the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016. 
Louis Brooks sits on his porch at his house in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016.

Louis Brooks at his house in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Thomaston, Georgia, U.S. August 16, 2016.

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In at least nine counties in Texas, polling sites posted outdated voter ID requirements that had been declared unconstitutional.

In Georgia, voters waited in line for as long as five hours in Gwinnett County, where close to half the residents are black or Latino and only one voting site was in operation for more than 400,000 eligible voters.

And this week, neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist leaders detailed their plans to suppress the African-American and Latino vote by deploying poll watchers to urban and minority voting districts.

Intimidation occurs in virtually every election, and it can take many forms. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law received more than 175,000 calls to its voter rights hotline through the 2012 presidential cycle. But while the volume of calls so far this year is not much greater than this time four years ago, far more of them have been to register complaints, says Lawyers Committee Executive Director Kristen Clarke.

"Some of this we see in all elections, but this is one in which the rhetoric has been particularly toxic," Clarke says.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly said the election is "rigged" and warned of "shenanigans" in "certain sections" of the country that could lead to a "stolen" result.

His website invites supporters to "volunteer to be a Trump election observer" to "Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary from Rigging This Election!" Earlier this month, during campaign stops before nearly all-white audiences, he called on supporters to "go around and watch other polling places."

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"So important that you watch other communities, because we don't want this election stolen from us," Trump said Oct. 10 during a rally outside Pittsburgh. During a later stop in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he added, "I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us. And everybody knows what I'm talking about."

Ruth Greenwood, deputy director of redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, called the remarks "very worrying."

"While there have been rogue groups that have gone out to do intimidation, I've never seen it be an explicit policy, certainly not from the candidates themselves," Greenwood says.

The rhetoric comes amid the first presidential election since the Supreme Court struck down a core part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The 5-4 ruling allowed nine states, mostly in the South and all with deep legacies of racial discrimination, to change their election laws without first getting federal approval. It also forced the Justice Department to curtail its five-decade practice of sending hundreds of trained observers to polling sites across the country.

Since the ruling, five of the nine states – Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – have put into effect new laws requiring voters to show photo ID, and a sixth, Arizona, has prohibited voters from turning in others' completed ballots. More than a dozen states overall have implemented new voting restrictions.

The photo ID rules have attracted particular focus. While supporters say they're aimed at reducing voter fraud, that phenomenon seems virtually nonexistent: A 2014 analysis by the Washington Post, for example, found just 31 cases of fraud out of 1 billion votes cast. Meanwhile, the ID rules either include or were loosened by courts to provide exceptions for those unable to obtain identification, but experts and advocates say they still have a chilling effect on poor voters – many of whom are minorities, most of whom tend to vote Democratic, and who may mistakenly believe they still need photo ID to vote.

They ID requirements can also help spread misinformation – deliberately or not – such as when voting sites post signs for the older, more restrictive rules.

"The litigation over Texas' voter ID law was closely watched, and it's hard to believe that election officials across the state were not made aware of the remedial order that was put in place by the courts," Clarke says, referring to incorrect signs posted in seven counties in Texas. "We don't know the intent, but most certainly there's a pattern. These are not isolated incidents."

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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