The Thin Line Between “Security” and Suppression

October 28, 2010

Election Day should reflect our democracy’s fundamental principle that every eligible voter should be able to cast a ballot that counts.  Instead, there is a real threat that partisan election monitors funded by political parties and independent groups will turn polling places into something closer to a political circus on November 2nd.

Political parties, movements like the Tea Party, and corporate elections-related spending have created widespread, well-funded programs that – in the name of ballot security – place hundreds of partisan operatives at polling places.  Political poll monitors’ role is to challenge individual voters based on residency, age, or citizenship - and the concern is that the process is largely aimed at voters who do not share those monitors’ political beliefs.  As one U.S. District Judge noted with respect to certain challenges lodged in Montana before the 2008 election, “[t]he timing of these challenges is so transparent that it defies common sense to believe the purpose is anything but political chicanery.”[1] 

These efforts carry a high risk of discouraging voters from casting valid ballotsNo matter how well-intentioned, throngs of partisan monitors clog already-taxed polling places and can create a climate of fear and uncertainty for voters.  Even under the best of circumstances, with political operatives jockeying for space in the polls alongside voters, there will be confusion and misapplication of poll monitoring laws.  The Brennan Center is very concerned that these targeted poll monitoring operations can and will cross the line into voter suppression. 

Unfortunately, these efforts are frequently concentrated in the most vulnerable voting precincts, and thus may disproportionately disenfranchise minority, low-income, and foreclosed voters on Election Day.  One federal court in Ohio found that under a challenge operation planned in that state for 2004, only 14 percent of voters in majority-white districts would be subject to voter challenges, while a stunning 97 percent of new voters in predominately African-American polling districts would face such a challenge.[2] Voter challenges based in whole or in part on race violate the federal Voting Rights Act – and we at the Brennan Center will be vigilant this election to monitor challenge operations to ensure they do not disenfranchise voters based on race.

Eligible voters should demand their right to cast a ballot that will count. If you experience intimidation, confusion, or discrimination at the polls, you can call Election Protection’s voter hotline to report any interference with your fundamental right to vote at 1-866-OUR-VOTE or, en español, 1-866-Ve-Y-Vota.  Voters may also report problematic conduct to the Voting Section of the United States Department of Justice by calling (800) 253-3931.  You can read more about the Brennan Center’s concerns about suppressive voter challenges here and read about current reports of aggressive "ballot security" operations here

Every American has a right to cast a vote that counts.  Poll monitoring efforts based on race, or intended to disenfranchise eligible voters, are flat-out unlawful.  A fundamental requirement of our democracy is ensuring that eligible voters are not turned away from the polls.  To the extent that “ballot security” operations discourage eligible voters, they fail us all.


[1] Montana Democratic Party v. Eaton, 581 F.Supp.2d 1077, 1081 (D.Mont. 2008).

[2] Spencer v. Blackwell, 347 F.Supp.2d 528, 530 (S.D.Ohio 2004).