Voter intimidation: What to do if someone tries to stop you from voting

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Voter intimidation may seem to many a relic of America's distant past, but even in the world's foremost democracy, complaints persist about harassment and intimidation during the ballot-casting process.

U.S. News spoke with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center about what is and what isn't allowed at polling sites, what constitutes intimidation or suppression, and what to do if you see it or it happens to you.

SEE MORE: In-depth coverage of the 2016 election

Note that state rules vary. To check the voting laws and regulations in your state, visit www.866ourvote.org/state, which is maintained by the Lawyers' Committee.

Who is allowed inside a polling location?

Poll workers, election officials, nonpartisan poll-watchers, and partisan representatives of the candidates and parties are permitted inside. Voters, of course, are allowed in, too, but only to vote – they are not allowed to linger.

Poll workers can exercise some discretion if someone is acting inappropriately. There are some local and state variations, too: Some areas, for example, reasoning that police can sometimes be seen as a threat, prohibit officers from entering unless invited; others assign police to polling sites by default.

Outside a polling site, how close can people get if they're not there to vote?

State rules vary, but generally there's a "campaign-free" buffer of at least 100 feet from the door.

What are demonstrators, poll workers and poll watchers allowed to say and do?

Outside a polling station, and beyond any buffer zones, normal laws governing free speech, and its limitations as far as intimidation, threats and harassment, generally apply with a few additional restrictions.

A campaign or a group of supporters, for example, are not allowed to offer free food or other enticements to voters. Also, promoting lies that are aimed at discouraging voters can be considered intimidation: While the First Amendment protects certain falsehoods, people are not allowed to tell prospective voters that to cast their ballots they must first pay back child support, or that they must settle overdue library fines, or serve in a jury within the next year, which are three recent examples recorded by the Campaign Legal Center.

[READ: What to Do if Someone Tries to Stop You From Voting]

Inside a polling location, typically only poll workers are allowed to interact with voters. If a partisan or nonpartisan watcher wants to challenge a voter's eligibility to cast a ballot, he or she may inform a poll worker, but not the voter directly.

What happens if your vote gets challenged?

Generally nothing, but the process might take slightly longer: A poll worker will decide if the challenge is valid. If so, you'll likely be asked to sign an affidavit affirming that you are who you say you are. Then you'll be allowed to vote.

What do I do if I witness inappropriate behavior or intimidation?

Inside or outside a polling location, the first thing to do is tell a poll worker. They can then address the issue, inform election officials, or request help from police if needed.

Voters who witness any issues should also call the Election Protection hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, which is maintained by the Lawyers' Committee:

  • English: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)
  • Spanish: 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682)
  • Asian Languages: 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683)
  • Arabic: 844-418-1682

The committee will record the incident and, if needed, dispatch a volunteer lawyer to address it. Lawyers can also file emergency challenges in court, where judges can issue injunctions, such as by ordering polling sites that opened late or that have very long lines to stay open later.

The Justice Department also has a hotline, which voters should also call after contacting Election Protection or if the Election Protection hotline is busy.

Justice Department voting rights discrimination hotline: 800-253-3931

Should I call 911?

If you feel endangered, if there's violence or even the threat of violence, or if there's an emergency, you should immediately call the police. Otherwise, the numbers above are the best solution.

How do I know if it's intimidation?

Intimidation can take many forms: Polls that open late or have overly long lines; signs that say photo ID is required; voter challenges that seem to target only certain groups that "look" like Democrats or Republicans; even something as simple as tone – telling voters outside a polling location that they need ID, rather than simply asking whether they have it, can all constitute intimidation.

If in doubt, ask a poll worker or call the hotlines.

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