All Americans have the legal right to vote without fear of intimidation or threats. The campaign rhetoric this year, howeverconsistently called racist, sexist, ableist and abusivemakes it hard not to expect tension at the polls, especially in battleground states.
In early October, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump seemed to suggest to a crowd of his supporters that “watching” marginalized communities during the voting process was necessary to ensure a fair election.
There are fears that these and other comments Trump has made may inspire cases of voter intimidation on Election Day. There have already been several reports of intimidation during early voting periods throughout various states, and Democrats have alleged that the GOP is planning large-scale voter intimidation efforts on Tuesday.
“We don’t want people to be afraid of going to the polls.”
Julie Ebenstein, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Voting Rights Project, tells Mashable that fears of intimidation or harassment are valid, but she emphasizes that it’s rare on a broad scale.
“Voter intimidation is always serious and of concern, but despite the rhetoric, it really is rare for it to occur in an organized way,” she says. “So, we don’t want people to be afraid of going to the polls.”
Even in isolated cases, empowered bystanders can help, especially with marginalized communities who often struggle with voting access as it is.
If you see someone being intimidated or harassed on Election Day, here’s what you can do.
1. Know your rightsand the rights of others.
You need to know the rights voters have in order to understand when those rights are violated.
“We want to have peaceful, civil, healthy discussions.”
Both federal and state laws protect against intimidation. “No person … shall intimidate, threaten or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote,” according to federal law.
“We want to have peaceful, civil, healthy discussions,” Ebenstein says. “That’s what a campaign and election are supposed to be. But [intimidation] has no place in or around the polling place or in the voting booth.”
2. Know what voter intimidation and harassment look like.
There are many overt forms of voter intimidation, such as verbal harassment targeted at specific people. Other forms, like supporters from political parties campaigning too aggressively in front of polling places, can sometimes fly under the radar.
The ACLU gives various examples of voter intimidation, including poll workers aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record or other qualifications to vote, with the goal of preventing them from voting. The ACLU also notes that harassment especially targeting non-English speakers and voters of color is considered voter intimidation.
But instances of intimidation are largely dependent on the context and details of a situation, Ebenstein says, meaning it’s difficult to give a hard-and-fast rule of what is and is not permissible.
“On the one hand, standing across the street and watching the polls may not be intimidating or intended as intimidation in one instance,” she says. “But a dozen armed men standing across the street, staring at each person who goes into the polls, could certainly be intimidating. It’s very, very fact-specific.”
When voting, trust your gut. If something seems to cross a line, it probably does.
3. Learn how to report harassment and intimidation.
For any potential instance of voter intimidation or harassment, Ebenstein says it’s important to alert polling officials to the situation at your polling site.
In cases of potential violence or direct threats, Ebenstein suggests contacting local law enforcement. To report instances of voter intimidation of a less-pressing nature, call your state’s main election office. Numbers for individual state offices can be found here.
“Immediately write down the details of what you saw so you can have very specific records.”
The Election Protection Hotline supported by several non-partisan organizations, including the ACLU also provides tailored resources for reporting instances of intimidation, as well as the next steps a person can take. Voters can call the hotline with their concerns at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).
Aside from having phone numbers for reporting, Ebenstein encourages those who witness harassment to document the incident in writing, so they can remember details.
“Immediately write down the details of what you sawwhere it occurred, if you got anyone’s names, the order of the events so you can have very specific records,” she says. “That can be really helpful later on, if we are trying to piece together a number of different perspectives.”
4. Be aware of at-risk groups.
Throughout this election cycle, many marginalized communities have been targeted by harmful rhetoric. Several of these communities, such as people of color and women, wear their identities on their sleeves and to the polling booths.
“If voter intimidation happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.”
It’s important to take such rhetoric as more than just words, considering how it impacts the comfort of those going to the polls. Be aware of the groups that need your allyship on Election Day, and take practical steps to show your support.
Consider planning to vote with friends to ensure comfort and safety. There are also several hashtag campaigns underwaylike #IllVoteWithYou and #PollPalsto help you connect with people who could use a buddy on Election Day.
“If voter intimidation happens to one of us, it happens to all of us,” Ebenstein says.
5. Make sure you’re aware of personal risk.
Before you intervene in any case of harassment, you need to consider your personal safety. By calling out a moment of harassment or intimidation at the polls, that behavior could then be targeted at you.
“It’s always a personal call in when or how someone gets involved when they see intimidation,” Ebenstein says. “All of those normal, interpersonal considerations come into play.”
While being an ally is important, you need to weigh the best options for how to get involved. There are many ways you can address the situation without jumping directly into the fray, such as alerting poll workers or law enforcement.
6. Try to take the lead in defusing the situation.
We’ve been fighting to stop voter suppression. Been filing lawsuits against gerrymandering. Now? It’s time for white people to step up.
Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) November 4, 2016
If you decide to speak up to the person causing harm at the polls, make it clear that what they’re doing is illegal. Many advocates suggest not engaging further than that; instead, focus on the person you are trying to help by leading them to a safer location.
“There’s room for disagreement and conversation, but absolutely no room at all for intimidation or harassment,” Ebenstein says.
Taking the lead in defusing the situation, however, could also mean calling in poll workers or police officers, who are charged with helping to maintain a peaceful polling location. That’s especially important if the harassment continues, or if you feel unsafe in any way.
7. Stick with the person, and listen to their needs.
Experiencing harassment can be triggering and scary, especially for people who have been enduring a campaign (and a lifetime) filled with harmful and unwelcoming rhetoric. Once you help defuse the immediate situation, it’s important to empower the person you’re helping to assert their own needs.
“I want to support you and help you feel safe. What can I do for you right now?”
Try saying, “I want to support you and help you feel safe. What can I do for you right now?” It’s a simple way to show someone they should feel free to ask for help.
If someone says they don’t want to report their own harassment, make sure you respect that. However, Ebenstein says that bystanders can report harassment they did not experience personally and still keep the identities of victims private.
“People can report either something that happened to them, or something that they saw on the Election Protection Hotline,” Ebenstein says.
Regardless, make sure you stand by the person who has experienced harmespecially if they are voting aloneto ensure they’re able to cast their ballot.