Election watchdogs worry voter intimidation could depress turnout

Election watchdogs worry voter intimidation could depress turnout

voting-line2Long early voting lines and a particularly contentious presidential election have led to incidents of voter intimidation and confrontations at voting sites across the state, say voter protection organizations and election directors.

Some amount of that happens in every election cycle, said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. But this year is a bit more intense.

“Is it more than we’ve seen in the past?” said Earls Tuesday. “Yes. I can’t remember this type of intimidation happening during early voting. That was always a quiet period.”

Earls’ group is part of the North Carolina Election Protection Coalition, a non-partisan group that runs a telephone hotline for those experiencing problems voting and has organized 1000 volunteers to serve as poll monitors, helping to ensure that all eligible voters have a chance to cast their ballots.

The group reports that so far they’ve seen a number of intimidating incidents at polls across the state – including Pamlico, Durham, Guilford, Forsyth and Nash counties.

They include:

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

* People in Durham County videotaping vans of black voters from church groups as they arrived at the polls.

* A man in Kernersville driving a van festooned with anti-Clinton signs to various polling areas and shouting insults – some of them religious – at voters.

* A man in Pamlico County driving a surplus military vehicle with anti-Clinton signs to various polling places, shouting “lock her up.”

Though no serious violence has been reported at polling places during early voting, several voting directors said they have received calls from people asking about bringing their guns to the polls – either while they vote or in order to “monitor” the polls.

“I did get a call from someone who was curious about bringing his own gun to a polling place,” said Charlie Collicutt, elections director in Guilford County. “I told him his voting place would be in a school and he couldn’t do that.”

Collicutt said he hasn’t seen anything more serious at early voting than squabbles between local candidates, but his office is working with local law enforcement so that if anything should happen on Election Day the response will be well planned and quickly carried out.

Lisa Bennett, elections director in Pamlico County, said some of the concerns about voter intimidation have been exaggerated. The man who drove a truck with pro Donald Trump signs to polls in her county stayed outside the no-campaigning buffer zone, she said, and his rhetoric wasn’t outside what’s normally seen from Trump supporters.

“He did shout ‘Lock Her Up’ a few times,” Bennett said. “But that just seems to be the slogan they’re using. It could be a lot worse.”

The lack of actual violence at polling places is a relief, Earls said, but the truth is that voter intimidation is as much about the threat and the atmosphere that is created as actually obstructing voters.

“The threats of intimidation at the polls are not new – whether it’s videotaping or shouting,” Earls said. “In some ways it seems like the impact of the threat is the threat – hearing that this might happen might discourage people from voting, so the threat by itself accomplishes its goal.”

Trump has for months encouraged his supporters to go to “certain places” to watch for and prevent fraud. Klu Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups have been even more explicit, calling for supporters to go to “inner city” polling places to monitor and intimidate black voters and discussing methods for driving potential Democratic voters from the polls.

Isela Gutierrez, associate research director for Democracy North Carolina, said the election protection coalition is looking toward Election Day, when those problems could become worse. Even if no violence or serious obstruction occurs, she said, the fears of it could still cause a chilling effect among marginalized voters who don’t want to be targeted.

“The truth is, the threats can sometimes be worse than the reality,” Gutierrez said.