If You See Voter Suppression in California, What Can You Do?

Jonathan Moy votes at a new outdoor voting center near Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco on Oct. 5, 2020, the first day of early voting. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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There's a lot to feel anxious about in the run-up to Election Day on Nov. 3, not least because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But you might be feeling particularly concerned about reports of lines around the block in Georgia, militia groups threatening to patrol polling centers and ongoing misinformation being spread about the validity of the election itself.

These reports are all examples of the forms that voter suppression can take. But what is voter suppression? And what can you do if you see it?

We spoke to experts at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice on how to spot voter suppression, what you can do if you see it and your rights within the polling booth.

These responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What is Voter Suppression, and What Can it Look Like? 

Angélica Salceda, Democracy and Civic Engagement Director, ACLU: Voter suppression is really an effort to prevent people from voting in order to manipulate an outcome of an election. So the targets have historically been Black, Latinx, Indigenous and young people.

Voter suppression can be systemic — in other words, embedded within our laws. Or it can come in the form of voter intimidation, to intimidate people from voting.

We know that tactics in our past history have included poll taxes, literacy tests and outright violence throughout the US. We now see the purging of people from voter rolls, the questioning of voters about their citizenship and eligibility. We've heard of robocalls threatening people that if they vote, their private information will be made available to law enforcement, and states putting arbitrary deadlines for the counting of absentee ballots.

What Does Voter Suppression Look Like in California?

Raúl Macías, Counsel in the Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice: This year, something that we're seeing a lot of in terms of California is —especially from the president — an effort to undermine confidence in our system. That is a form of voter suppression: the constant undermining of confidence in our elections, and especially our vote-by-mail system.

These unfounded allegations that ... millions of people who are ineligible to vote are voting in California. These kinds of lies that are spread are voter suppression, because [they're] trying to undermine confidence that our system is safe and secure.

This kind of misinformation about fraud in our system is an effort to discourage voters from participating because they might think that it doesn't matter, because the system is allegedly "rigged." And that's simply not true.

Salceda: In California, you have two forms of voter suppression — and the most common involve laws and policies that can create barriers to people to vote. For example in California, there's a law that prohibits people who have completed their prison sentences from voting [until the completion of their parole term] and that has resulted in stripping 50,000 people from the right to vote.

But there's also overt intimidation. So that can be individuals intentionally blocking access to drive up to a ballot box, for example. And we've heard of instances of that.

What Can You Do if You See Voter Suppression in California?

Salceda: We're telling people to contact their local poll workers or county elections officials to flag any irregularities, including voter intimidation, that they might see or experience at polling locations or ballot boxes. We know that in many instances these issues can be resolved by the local elections officials, so it's really important to flag those irregularities to those who are working the vote centers. And we have heard of examples of election officials rectifying the issues, or finding different solutions to ensure that voters are able to cast their ballot.

There's also a nationwide hotline of attorneys who have been trained and are available for any questions or to flag any issues. Voters can call the [nonpartisan Election Protection coalition] at 866-OUR-VOTE, which will connect them with that network of attorneys who will be monitoring the elections.

Macías:  It's also important to understand that elections officials [are] reading what voters are reading, too — and they're making preparations. They're training their poll workers in de-escalation tactics, and making sure that they're coordinating with with law enforcement as necessary, in case they need to be deployed there. They're monitoring what's being said, and making sure that they're prepared in case there is intimidation or attempted intimidation of voters. So I think elections officials seem well prepared for this.

What Rights Do I Have at My Polling Center?

Salceda: There's both state and federal laws that make it very clear that that prohibits voter intimidation. So if someone is behaving in a way that seems forceful, intimidating, threatening, violent or coercive at or near a voting location or drop-box, that's the type of issue that should be reported to a local elections official who will hopefully be able to resolve the issue.

In California also, for example, peace officers in uniform are prohibited from being at a voting center unless they are there to vote themselves, or if it's to address an issue [see above.] That law really stemmed from incidents that happened in California in the 1980s, where some candidates used to hire security guards to stand at the vote center. So that is prohibited in California.

And so if there's any instances of that, or even individuals who are pretending to be security guards or uniformed police officers, those are the types of incidents and incidents that should be reported immediately to local elections officials, who can then try to resolve the issue.

Macías: [To address] other reports you're hearing where it seems that that, potentially, militias or armed observers are going out to polling places: in California, specifically, carrying any kind of weapon in the vicinity of a polling place is illegal.

If voters are being made to feel uncomfortable, they should report it to the poll worker staff right away. Voters should know that nobody except a poll worker can ever challenge their eligibility to vote. And so if that's happening, or they feel people are asking them questions about their eligibility who are not poll workers, that's something they can also report to the poll workers on site. Or they can call 866-OUR-VOTE for assistance.

There are laws that protect [voters] from any kind of discrimination based on their example, based on their race or their national origin or their primary language. None of those should be reasons that they face intimidation or face questions about their eligibility.

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