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Voter intimidation complaints grow on the eve of Election Day

Tens of thousands of legal volunteers stand ready to go to court, if necessary

A customer looks out of the window as workers board up the windows of the Starbucks at 16th and K streets Northwest in Washington on Nov. 2, 2020. Many storefronts and office buildings in downtown Washington are boarded up in anticipation of unrest on Election Day.
A customer looks out of the window as workers board up the windows of the Starbucks at 16th and K streets Northwest in Washington on Nov. 2, 2020. Many storefronts and office buildings in downtown Washington are boarded up in anticipation of unrest on Election Day. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Election advocacy groups are preparing for the possibility of voter intimidation at the polls Tuesday, although weeks of early voting remained mostly peaceful despite the country’s unsettled mood in a year with simmering partisan and sometimes violent conflicts on the streets.

There has been an uptick in complaints about voter intimidation to the hotline run by the nonpartisan Election Protection program at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Kristen Clarke, the group’s president and chief executive officer, said Monday.

Police used pepper spray to break up a march of largely Black voters to the Alamance County polls in North Carolina on Saturday, and a number of people who intended to vote “were unable to do so because they were literally detained at the local jail,” Clarke said during a National Task Force on Election Crises briefing.

Clarke’s group put Florida law enforcement and election officials on alert after complaints to the voter helpline, 866-OUR-VOTE, about aggressive groups seeking to intimidate voters across the state.

And Clarke said the group is working to address complaints from Lane County, Oregon, that armed individuals wearing militia attire were approaching people Sunday at a ballot drop box site — the kind of activity they are on high alert about for Election Day.

“When one voter attempted to drive to drop off their ballot, one of the individuals that was a part of this militia group asked the voter to roll down their window [and] asked where they were going,” Clarke said. “The voter was very concerned for their safety and, rather than proceeding to the drop box, drove off very scared and reported the incident.”

Clarke said there is a network of 42,000 legal volunteers who will be operating via 30 command centers across the country.

Mary McCord, the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, said a coalition of lawyers have templates ready to seek emergency legal relief under the Voting Rights Act — but that isn’t as nimble as speaking directly with election officials.

The lawyers have direct lines of communications to many state attorneys general and try to get this remedy on the spot. “But if local officials are unwilling or unable to take action, then we do have that backstop of filing court cases,” McCord said.

Voting groups also put out guidance for law enforcement about the political truck and car caravans that have popped up across the country and can be intimidating to voters, McCord said, “particularly if they are coming up and surrounding a polling place, or surrounding a ballot box, like we saw in Oregon.”

The country has been bracing for unrest at the polls and in the streets, with businesses boarding up windows in Washington, D.C., Denver and other places that saw protests and riots.

There has also been chatter on social media, amplified in part by Trump raising questions about the integrity of the election, that some unlawful groups often called militias might deploy to the polls to protect against voter fraud or ballot counting fraud, and then deploy on the streets postelection, either to again protect against ballot counting fraud or protect property against what they view as violent anarchists from the left, McCord said.

“We are, on a bright side, also seeing that much of the chatter among the unlawful militias is now in a little bit of dissent about whether it is wise to deploy to polling places,” McCord said. “There are some organizations that are still urging it. There are others who are urging them not to take that type of activity.”

Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed out that even if there are horrible incidents, it is in the context of 13,000 separate elections going on around the country, each with many polling places.

“Despite a huge spike of protests, despite months of attempts to scare people, and despite weeks of early voting, we have had a remarkably peaceful election season up until now,” Kleinfeld said. “We have had a vast number, millions and millions of people, voting without a great deal of trouble and we need to hope that that happens tomorrow and we need to make sure that we’re not serving to unwittingly scare anyone off.”

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