Statewide View: Election protection includes countering voter intimidation
The right to vote ensures that citizens have a voice in the political decision-making that impacts their lives. This right, guaranteed by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is viewed as the pillar for global peace.
However, free and fair elections are under attack in the United States.
Without free and fair elections, powerful leaders are not accountable to the people they are charged to serve. This can result in corruption, violence, and backsliding on human rights.
Voter intimidation is a looming threat to the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election, and voters need to be prepared.
Voter intimidation takes many forms. It can be violence, or even the threat of violence, against supporters of the opposition party. Or it can be political demonstrations outside of polling places that frighten potential voters away.
Business Insider published a report stating that several far-right groups are “planning to patrol polling sites on Election Day.” The presence of these groups could intimidate voters and influence the election, especially if members are armed.
Just six states (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) have laws that outright ban guns at polling places. Four of the election’s key battleground states (North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia) have no regulations around firearms in polling places.
On Oct. 16, in response to current threats of intimidation, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced that people will not be allowed to openly carry guns “in a polling place, in any hallway used by voters to enter or exit, or within 100 feet of any entrance to a building in which a polling place is located” on Election Day. However, in Michigan, people will still be allowed to bring concealed weapons into polling locations, and they can openly carry weapons just 100 feet outside of the polls.
Because there are often long lines on Election Day, people can use guns to intimidate voters who are in a line over 100 feet from the polling location. This could be the case in many states.
Amnesty International, a global human rights watchdog, recently launched a campaign to urge governors to ban guns in and around polling locations. In its statement, Amnesty pointed to the rising number of firearms sales in the U.S., elevated risks due to the coronavirus pandemic, and what Amnesty called plans by some to “recruit tens of thousands of partisan election monitors” as reasons to be concerned for voter safety.
Using guns to intimidate voters is not purely speculative. Amnesty International wrote, “Michael Caputo, the former spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, last month encouraged Trump supporters to arm themselves before the election.” This direct command has serious implications for the legitimacy of the election, as armed, partisan actors could certainly intimidate voters. Black and Hispanic voters who are already threatened by racial violence could be particularly intimidated by armed partisan actors outside the polls since they are already facing disenfranchisement through other avenues.
In Minnesota, it is legal to have a concealed weapon in and around Minnesota’s polling locations. However, hopefully, Gov. Tim Walz will respond to Amnesty International’s plea and ask Minnesotans to not bring concealed weapons into any voting location.
On Oct. 23, the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Minnesota, or CAIR-MN, and the League of Women Voters of Minnesota celebrated a victory in a federal lawsuit against a private contractor, Atlas Aegis, for voter intimidation in Minnesota. The lawsuit alleged that Atlas Aegis’s plans to hire and deploy armed ex-soldiers to polling sites in the state constitutes illegal voter intimidation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After the lawsuit was filed, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison also filed a criminal case, resulting in an injunction that Atlas Aegis “not provide any protective agent services … in Minnesota from October 22, 2020 through January 1, 2022” and that it “not seek to intimidate voters, in Minnesota or elsewhere.”
Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota stated, “Minnesota voters can rest easy tonight knowing that their polling places will remain free of sinister voter intimidation. We are grateful to the Minnesota Attorney General for negotiating an agreement that prevents the unlawful and threatening occupation of polling locations.”
Election-protection activities have been in place for many elections nationwide, and people are working diligently to ensure the 2020 election and polls are safe. In Minnesota, the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general are ensuring that the votes, polls, and people are safe. The Election Protection Hotline — 866ourvote.org or 866-687-8683 — can be used by anyone to report concerns.
Governors, secretaries of state, legislators, organizations, and voters all must act to prevent or report voter intimidation in and around polling places. Our democracy depends on the right of everyone to vote.
Jacob Simpson of St. Paul is a research and advocacy associate for World Without Genocide (worldwithoutgenocide.org) at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He wrote this for the News Tribune.