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Report

Ballot Security and Voter Suppression

Published: August 29, 2012

“Ballot secur­ity” is an umbrella term for a vari­ety of prac­tices that are carried out by polit­ical oper­at­ives and private groups with the stated goal of prevent­ing voter fraud. Far too often, however, ballot secur­ity initi­at­ives have the effect of suppress­ing eligible votes, either inad­vert­ently or through outright inter­fer­ence with voting rights.

An updated Bren­nan Center report, Ballot Secur­ity and Voter Suppres­sion: What It Is and What the Law Says, addresses four types of conduct that often accom­pany ballot secur­ity initi­at­ives, voter chal­lenges, voter caging, voter intim­id­a­tion and decept­ive prac­tices.

Over the past year, polit­ical groups and activ­ist organ­iz­a­tions across the coun­try have been pour­ing substan­tial resources into anti-voter fraud programs and encour­aging their members to serve as voter chal­lengers and poll watch­ers this Novem­ber. Coupled with the spate of harsh new voting restric­tions that many states have enacted over the past two years, there is a signi­fic­ant risk that ballot secur­ity oper­a­tions will result in vote suppres­sion and voter intim­id­a­tion during the 2012 elec­tions.


Intro­duc­tion

“Ballot secur­ity” is an umbrella term for a vari­ety of prac­tices that are carried out by polit­ical oper­at­ives and private groups with the stated goal of prevent­ing voter fraud. Far too often, however, ballot secur­ity initi­at­ives have the effect of suppress­ing eligible votes, either inad­vert­ently or through outright inter­fer­ence with voting rights.

There is noth­ing intrins­ic­ally wrong with invest­ig­at­ing and prevent­ing voter fraud, despite the fact study after study shows that actual voter fraud is extraordin­ar­ily rare.1 But demo­cracy suffers when anti-fraud initi­at­ives block or create unne­ces­sary hurdles for eligible voters; when they target voters based on race, ethni­city, or other imper­miss­ible char­ac­ter­ist­ics; when they cause voter intim­id­a­tion and confu­sion; and when they disrupt the voting process.

Unfor­tu­nately, ballot secur­ity oper­a­tions have too often had these effects, both histor­ic­ally and in recent elec­tions. A federal appeals court recently found that ballot secur­ity oper­a­tions planned or conduc­ted in recent years have by and large threatened legit­im­ate voters.2 The court’s opin­ion indic­ates that not only do such initi­at­ives often target eligible voters for disen­fran­chise­ment, but they also tend to disrupt polling places, create long lines, and cause voters to feel intim­id­ated.3 Moreover, these effects are often felt dispro­por­tion­ately in areas with large concen­tra­tions of minor­ity or low-income voters, where such oper­a­tions have typic­ally been direc­ted.

While little came of these efforts in the 2010 elec­tion, there is reason to believe that similar efforts will pose a renewed threat to voters in 2012. Over the past year, polit­ical groups and activ­ist organ­iz­a­tions across the coun­try have been pour­ing substan­tial resources into anti-voter fraud programs and encour­aging their members to serve as voter chal­lengers and poll watch­ers next year.5 For example, in 2011, a Hous­ton-area organ­iz­a­tion called “True The Vote” announced its plan to recruit and train one million volun­teers nation­ally to monitor the polls during the 2012 general elec­tion.6 Although the group’s own poll-watch­ing efforts in Harris County, Texas, drew scru­tiny in 2010 after witnesses complained that the group’s members were harass­ing voters in communit­ies of color,7 the organ­iz­a­tion has never­the­less moved forward with plans to support local activ­ists’ poll-watch­ing and voter chal­lenge efforts in other states in 2012. This summer, activ­ists in Mary­land who had been inspired by True The Vote’s efforts, chal­lenged hundreds of voters in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties and announced their plans to “fan out to the polls” this Novem­ber.

With the spate of harsh new voting restric­tions that many states have enacted over the past two years, groups like these have gained a broader plat­form for promot­ing their views.10 These devel­op­ments suggest that there is a signi­fic­ant risk that ballot secur­ity oper­a­tions will result in vote suppres­sion and voter intim­id­a­tion during the Novem­ber 2012 elec­tions, regard­less of whether or not this is their inten­ded result.

Accord­ingly, this paper, which was origin­ally released just before the 2010 elec­tion, has been updated for use in 2012. It addresses four types of conduct that often accom­pany ballot secur­ity initi­at­ives:

Voter chal­lenges: formal chal­lenges lodged by polit­ical oper­at­ives or private citizens to the eligib­il­ity of persons present­ing them­selves to vote, either at the polls or prior to Elec­tion Day;

Voter caging: efforts to identify and disen­fran­chise improp­erly registered voters solely on the basis of an undeliv­er­able mail­ing;

Voter intim­id­a­tion: conduct that intim­id­ates or threatens voters into voting a certain way or refrain­ing from voting; and

Decept­ive prac­tices: the dissem­in­a­tion of mislead­ing inform­a­tion regard­ing the time, place, or manner of an elec­tion.

Because this conduct has the poten­tial to inter­fere with the lawful exer­cise of the fran­chise, it is import­ant for every­one involved in the process to have a clear under­stand­ing as to what is and what is not permiss­ible conduct. Specific­ally, voters should be armed with the know­ledge that federal and state law afford protec­tions against ballot secur­ity efforts that are discrim­in­at­ory, intim­id­at­ing, decept­ive, or that seek to disen­fran­chise voters on the basis of unre­li­able inform­a­tion. Those who parti­cip­ate in ballot secur­ity programs should take care to ensure that their initi­at­ives do not encroach upon the rights of eligible voters and run afoul of state and federal laws.

Voters who exper­i­ence or witness any of the discrim­in­at­ory, intim­id­at­ing, or decept­ive conduct discussed below should imme­di­ately report the prob­lem to elec­tion author­it­ies and, when appro­pri­ate, to law enforce­ment author­it­ies. Voters should also call 1–866-OUR-VOTE, a non-partisan voter protec­tion hotline; trained volun­teers will be able to provide assist­ance and take steps to ensure that you can exer­cise your right to vote. Voters should also report the offens­ive conduct to the Voting Section of the United States Depart­ment of Justice by call­ing 1–800–253–3931.