Coming soon to your state—voter harassment and intimidation

Posted on August 17, 2016

Last Friday (August 12), Donald Trump told a nearly all-white crowd in Altoona, Pennsylvania that he was concerned about voter fraud in their state. In dog-whistle language he said he’d “heard some stories about certain parts of the state, and we have to be very careful.”

Trump went on, warning that Pennsylvania doesn’t have a voter ID requirement (it was struck down by the courts) so “Maybe you should go down and volunteer or do something.” About Election Day, he said: “We have a lot of law enforcement people working that day…. We’re hiring a lot of people. We’re putting a lot of law enforcement. We’re going to watch Pennsylvania, go down to certain areas and watch and study, and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”

Trump’s campaign followed this by asking supporters to sign up to be a “Trump Election Observer.” His website asks them to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”

The purpose of this blog is not to rag on Trump, it’s to point out that voter harassment and intimidation is nothing new. Over the last few election cycles, campaigns have tried to suppress the vote of millions of Americans. Just a few examples:

Two years ago, Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) campaign sent official-looking mailers to low-income voters saying “Election Violation Notice” and warning that “You are at risk of acting on fraudulent information.”

College students in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Kentucky were falsely told that they were not allowed to vote.

Sheriff’s Deputies in Siskiyou County, California went door-to-door to houses of Asian Americans of Hmong descent, armed with rifles, telling residents the punishment of voter fraud.

Alabama tried to suppress minority voting by closing down 31 DMV offices in rural, majority-black counties across the state.

In Philadelphia, flyers in low-income neighborhoods warned that people with outstanding warrants or unpaid parking tickets could be arrested at the polls.

In Fayetteville, North Carolina, black residents who walked from an Obama rally to a nearby early voting center were heckled and harassed by white protesters.

For more, see this brand new op-ed in the New York Times.

Today, more than 50 years after the historic Voting Rights Act was enacted, voter suppression is still fairly common. This is in part because the Act is limited in scope and in part because most violators are never punished. Federal law also does nothing to prevent mistakes by election officials.

In the short run, progressives and government officials must vigorously defend voters’ rights. But in the longer run, states should adopt legislation that goes beyond federal law—a statewide Voter Protection Act.

Our model Voter Protection Act combines the best practices of laws in California, Connecticut and Illinois. It employs three avenues to ensure that every eligible voter is allowed to vote:

  • Penalties for intimidation and suppression—Heavy penalties would be imposed for both voter intimidation and suppression. Most states currently prohibit voter intimidation but not fraudulent suppression. Many state voter intimidation laws also have inadequate penalties.
  • Voter’s Bill of Rights—Every polling place would be required to post a Voter’s Bill of Rights. Seven states (CA, CT, FL, IN, MN, NV, NJ) currently have a Voter’s Bill of Rights.
  • Election Day Manual of Procedures—A book that clearly sets out election rules would be available to both voters and officials at the polls. New Jersey and Washington have laws requiring an election manual.

In the United States, the right to vote should be sacrosanct, because without that right we don’t have a democracy. Our election system must be completely free, fair and accessible.