Pennsylvania’s Guidance on Voter Intimidation Serves as a Model For Other States

By Sarah Brannon October 31, 2016
Photo: Todd Lappin via Creative Commons
Photo: Todd Lappin via Creative Commons

In this election cycle, there has been a lot of very troubling rhetoric about elections being rigged, and downright dangerous statements encouraging people to take matters into their own hands to look out for voter fraud.

Not only is it ridiculous to be concerned about voter fraud—a problem that has been proven time and time again to not exist in any meaningful way—but this kind of language has created an atmosphere where eligible citizens may be afraid to vote. Fear of voting is completely antithetical to America democracy. We cannot let this harmful rhetoric be the last word on voting in America. State officials must speak out against voter intimidation.

Because of our concerns, Project Vote recently sent letters to governors in nine states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin) asking them to work with officials to develop guidance to deal with the potential of voter intimidation and discrimination.

But we also wanted to share that the Pennsylvania Department of State (DOS) has taken the lead in addressing these concerns. Last week the DOS issued two sets of guidance. The first document is “Guidance on Rules in Effect at the Polling Place on Election Day.” DOS issued this guidance because it wants to make sure that elections are run as “smoothly and fairly as possible.” This document addresses the proper conduct for individuals involved with Election Day, such as police and poll watchers.

In general, police officers are not allowed in the polling places in Pennsylvania unless they are voting or have been called in to keep the peace. Pennsylvania, like most states, also has very specifics rules about who can be in a poll place on Election Day: only election workers, voters, those lawfully assisting voters, and appointed poll watchers. To be poll watcher, you must be a registered voter in the county and you must be appointed by the party or candidate before Election Day for this purpose. This means that members of the general public are not allowed into poll places on Election Day in Pennsylvania. This guidance is very helpful in providing an understanding of the rules of the process on Election Day.

But the second guidance document is perhaps even more helpful, given the climate we are currently facing. That document is titled “Guidance on Voter Intimidation and Discriminatory Conduct”.

First, it lays out the specific criminal penalties for voter intimidation, which, as they should be, are significant. Discriminating against a voter can result in a fine of up to $5,000 dollars and up to five years in prison; conspiring to interfere with a person’s right to vote can result in up to 10 years in prison. And then, second, it gives a very helpful set of examples of what is considered to be voter intimidation and discriminatory conduct. This list includes:

  • Aggressive behavior inside or outside the polling place.
  • Blocking the entrance to the polling place.
  • Direct confrontation or questioning of voters, or asking voters for documentation when none is required.
  • Disrupting voting lines inside or outside of the polling place.
  • Disseminating false or misleading election information.
  • Election workers treating voters differently in any way based on race or other protected characteristics.
  • Ostentatious showing of weapons.
  • Photographing or videotaping voters to intimidate them.
  • Poll watchers confronting, hovering or directly speaking to voters.
  • Posting signs inside the polling place of penalties for “voter fraud” voting or support for a candidate.
  • Routine and frivolous challenges to voters by election workers and private citizens that are made without a stated good faith basis.
  • Using raised voices, insulting offensive or threatening language, or making taunting chants inside the polling place.
  • Verbal or physical confrontation of voters by persons dressed in official-looking uniforms.
  • Violence or using the threat of violence to interfere with a person’s right to vote.

We hope that all individuals planning to play a role in Election Day next week will read this guidance and behave accordingly.

It is great that the Department of State has taken these steps, and is doing what it can to make sure that everyone in Pennsylvania has confidence in their ability to vote safely. Eligible Americans in all 50 states should have the same confidence. We urge other states to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and issue similar guidance, making it clear that voter intimidation and discrimination has no place in our American Democracy.