Voter intimidation is any concerted effort or practice by an individual or group on behalf of a party or candidate to coerce the voting behavior of a particular class or demographic of voters.
The most flagrant example of voter intimidation is the commission of violence, or the threat of violence, against a particular group of voters. Polling places in low-income, minority, and heavily Democratic areas may be targeted for vandalism or destruction, causing both psychological and physical impediments to voting. Voters are also intimidated when they are informed falsely that, for example, they will be arrested at the polling place if they owe child support or have outstanding parking tickets.
Economic voter intimidation also exists, where an employer or supervisor threatens a person’s job if he votes for a particular candidate or party against the wishes of the company or union. Former felons suffer intimidation when they are told that they are ineligible to vote when they are eligible or banning non-felons due to record-keeping errors. Conversely, in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, almost 20,000 people with names similar to felons were disenfranchised when an error-ridden list of “felons” was used to bar them from voting. In the 2004 presidential election, voters received phone calls with false information about changes in voting locations or misinforming them that they should vote on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.
The 2008 presidential election was one of the most competitive elections in our history, which led to many instances of voter intimidation. For example:
- In October 2008, the ACLU of New Mexico and Project Vote filed a lawsuit charging a Republican New Mexico State Representative and a private investigator with voter intimidation and invasion of privacy. Newly-registered minority voters were declared in a press conference by the NM State Representative to have fraudulently voted in the state primary elections. A private investigator was later hired by a party official to go to the homes of these voters and interrogate them about their citizenship status.
- After a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, supporters of Barack Obama went to a nearby early voting center, where they were heckled and harassed by a group of protesters as they went in to vote. Nearly all of the early voters were black, and nearly all of the protesters were white.
- In Virginia, students at Virginia Tech were told that if they registered to vote in Virginia, it could affect their scholarship or tax dependency status and would obligate them to change their car registration and driver’s license to their permanent address.
- Finally, a poll worker in Dearborn, Michigan was perceived to be intimidating Muslim Americans, of which Dearborn has a large concentration. Two Michigan precincts also reported the presence of police scanning the long lines for voters with outstanding warrants, with one person being arrested.
Currently, there are federal laws that make voter intimidation illegal, but their lenient penalties have spurred lawmakers to introduce legislation with more teeth. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 prohibit persons from intimidating or attempting to intimidate, threaten or coerce another person for the purpose of interfering with their right to vote freely in federal elections. However, the maximum penalty for conviction on a charge of voter intimidation under federal guidelines is a fine and/or no more than one year in prison, which has hardly deterred voter intimidation schemes in the past.
States should expand and clarify what practices and tactics constitute voter intimidation, including, for example, the dissemination of false election information. The penalties for convictions of voter intimidation should be increased to a maximum of five years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Any attempt or conspiracy to intimidate voters should be punished equally harshly. Finally, the Attorney General should be required to report to Congress with a compilation of incident reports within 90 days of a federal election. The laws of each state should be strict in its punishment of persons convicted of voter intimidation so that they may serve as a deterrent to prevent instances of voter intimidation from occurring.
For more information read Project Vote's policy brief on Voter Intimidation here.