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Election Watchers Keep an Eye on the Fringes of Voter Intimidation

Voters wait in line to enter the Stark County Board of Elections. There is a 100-foot campaign-free zone in effect around the board of elections.
M.L. Schultze
Voters wait in line to enter the Stark County Board of Elections. There is a 100-foot campaign-free zone in effect around the board of elections.

Along with unprecedented early voting numbers and enthusiasm has come some tension at polling places throughout Ohio. And that’s ratcheted up concern about voter intimidation. The actions of some at the polls could be criminal, others just make voters uncomfortable, and the line between those two is not always clear.

The final week of early voting at the Stark County Board of Elections began with a truck flying a brilliant blue Trump flag cruising the parking lot, a Democratic sound truck offering free donuts and masks, and some of the hundreds of voters in between wondering if someone was breaking the law. Some challenged the Democratic campaigners who noted they were outside the legal perimeter. Others said the Trump truck was closer than legally permissible to the voters stretching around the building and through the parking lot.

But Jen Miller of the League of Women voters of Ohio noted, “Sometimes things feel like intimidation that may not quite be.”

To help voters sort through it all, the League is among the partners in a voter protection project that includes a hotline to report problems around the state and country. The reports to 866-OUR-VOTE range from delays in getting absentee ballots to groups carrying guns adjacent to polling places. The nonpartisan coalition manning the hotline follows up with elections officials and others, including lawyers. But Miller noted that conflict is not automatically a legal violation.

“In Franklin County, we had both pro-life and pro-choice folks standing outside of the electioneering area and kind of having their own arguments among themselves,” she said. “It was stressful for people, some really graphic images. That’s gray as to whether that would be intimidation or not.”

What likely could have cleared up the gray would be if the protesters decided to direct threats at the voters themselves. That could have violated a key tenant of the federal Voting Rights Act, which says in part that “no person … shall intimidate, threaten, coerce ... any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of [that] person to vote ."

The prohibitions include a range of actions, such as giving voters misinformation about the consequences of their voting, grilling them about their English speaking skills, and physically threatening them or blocking their path to the polls.

Ohio law adds some other caveats, including establishing a 100-foot campaign-free zone around a polling place. And when the lines spill out the doors as they have this year, it sets a 10-foot zone separating campaigners from voters.

But sometimes violations can be hard to measure, and intention makes all the difference. Freda Levenson of the ACLU of Ohio, another partner in the hotline, says that would be the case with a pro-Trump rally near the Tuscarawas County Board of Elections last weekend in which some people were openly carrying guns.

“Perhaps they just had the assembly there in order to have an audience across the street, or maybe they intended to send some kind of intimidating message,” Levenson said.

This week, the ACLU sent a letter to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose laying out the range of laws applying to voter intimidation.

“We fear this rhetoric has been seen as a dangerous call for voter intimidation,” the letter read. In fact, we’ve recently received complaints about voter intimidation and harassment tactics emerging across the state. No voter should have to choose between their safety and making their voice heard at the ballot box.”

The letter did express appreciation for LaRose’s recent statements that “you will not tolerate any kind of intimidation or suppression.

The ACLU also looks for patterns in calls to the hotline that may underscore more widespread problems. And both it and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have assigned attorneys in cases where voters are not only harassed, but prevented from voting for other reasons.

Jon Greenbaum of the Lawyers Committee, which helped establish the voter protection project, said concern about suppression is nothing new, though this election has ratcheted up fears.

“I’ve been doing voting rights since 1997, first at the Department of Justice and for the last 17 years for the Lawyers Committee, and the level of intensity with respect to this election is unprecedented,” he said.

But awareness and resources may also be unprecedented. Beyond formal efforts like the hotline, Greenbaum noted the structure of this election itself can help because extended early voting makes it harder for suppression efforts to hit their targets.

There’s also a tool that’s played prominently in documenting police abuse this summer: the cell phone. Voters witnessing intimidation at the polls can more easily document the behavior, though Greenbaum advised caution:

“If anybody feels they’re in some sort of physical danger by starting to record things, they shouldn’t be doing that,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is to have somebody who’s physically hurt at the polls.”

Many elections boards are hiring more monitors for Election Day to rotate among the polling locations to look for trouble, and part of poll worker training this year is more guidance on what to do about conflicts. Some boards also have plans for sheriff’s and local police to be stationed nearby.

Complaints can be reported by officials and individual voters to both Ohio’ssecretary of state, who is also a partner in the Election Protection hotline, and attorney general.

Regardless of whether actions turn out to be illegal, the League of Women Voters is encouraging voters to report their experiences. And recognizing that things can be legal, but still unnerving, Jen Miller said the League has begun training clergy and social workers to diffuse problems at the polls.

“At Tuscarawas County, we actually had clergy in their robes and collars trying to exude a sense of calm and peace, also to try to help de-escalate the situation so that nothing does go any further,” she said.

So far this year, the only criminal charges tied to voter intimidation in Ohio have been against two out-of-state right-wing operatives, Jacob Wohl and John Burkman. They’re accused of orchestrating tens of thousands of robocolls to Black voters that falsely claimed mail-in voting information would be shared with police, credit-card companies and the CDC, which would then require the voters to get vaccinations.

Llranza Payton is a Canton voter, one of the hundreds who lined up at the Stark County Board of Elections Sunday, and one of many who were African-American. She said, in a way, such efforts to deter Black voters is reaffirming.

“Your vote obviously has some importance in it because if it didn’t have any importance, people wouldn’t be fighting for you not to,” she said.

Advocates hope they’re equipping voters with what they need to ensure the fight is a fair one.

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

A poster from the Ohio Secretary of State lays out protections against voter intimidation.
/ Ohio Secretary of State
Ohio Secretary of State
A poster from the Ohio Secretary of State lays out protections against voter intimidation.
Jon Greenbaum with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has worked on voting rights, beginning with his days at the U.S. Department of Justice.

/ Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Jon Greenbaum with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has worked on voting rights, beginning with his days at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lauren Green / WKSU