Civil Rights Groups Ready to Stand Up to Voter Intimidation

Donald Trump’s heated rhetoric about “rigged elections” has put organizations on high alert for “poll watchers” who may threaten citizens’ right to vote.

Election official Cassandra Lewis waits to welcome voters at an early-voting poll station in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25, 2016.
Election official Cassandra Lewis waits to welcome voters at an early-voting poll station in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25, 2016. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

Gabrielle Gray is a little busy these days. The 26-year-old doctoral student in political science at Howard University is coordinating the school’s 2016 Presidential General Election Voter Protection Project. It involves putting together teams of students from HBCUs around the nation to keep voters of color from being intimidated at the polls on Election Day.

“I have a background in education. It’s one thing to sit in classes to learn about voter suppression, and it’s another thing to act against it,” says Gray, who is also president of the Howard University Graduate Political Science Association.

She has been concerned by calls from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his supporters to “watch” polling places in cities with large populations of people of color, including Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia. On Oct. 22, in a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., Trump told the audience that voter fraud exists and that “the system is totally rigged and broken.”

“The rhetoric Trump is saying is what my grandparents went through,” Gray says, “so my reason for organizing is to make sure blacks continue to be protected and their rights are protected.”

HUGPSA is partnering with the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation and the Black Youth Vote! Network on a smorgasbord of issues, including registering students to vote, making sure they have access to absentee ballots and talking to them about how to avoid voter suppressions. Gray says money is being raised to send students from Howard to Ohio, northern Virginia and Maryland to monitor polls on Election Day, and also to do some exit polling.

“From Howard, we’re doing training on how to interact with people and how to avoid confrontation … and there’ll be a command center set up where lawyers, faculty and students will take calls reporting voter suppression,” Gray says.

Sindy Benavides at the Washington, D.C-based League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, says the organization has been hearing worries from Latino citizens over possible intimidation of voters as well.

“We have heard concerns from individuals … when they were talking with their friends or families or partners while we were registering them to vote,” Benavides says. “The other major flag for us is, individuals who have limited English but are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote and registered who are concerned that they would not be allowed to bring someone with them to help them.”

Benavides says that LULAC is partnering with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, and there will be bilingual call centers (888-VE-Y-VOTA) where people can call with questions such as the location of their polling place or to report problems at the polls. In 2012 there were also concerns, and more than 3,000 people called on Election Day alone. This year, organizers are expecting a higher volume. LULAC is also offering voters rides to polls if needed and training the drivers on basic knowledge of one’s rights while voting.

“In case they see voter intimidation happening or if they see supporters from whichever party screaming at voters or telling them to go back home to their country, we want to make sure our voters feel protected and safe,” Benavides explains. “One of the other things we are concerned with are long lines, especially for our community that’s very hardworking who might have to work far away [from the polls].”

In fact, long lines are the most frequent issue Latino voters experience at the polls, according to a poll (pdf) NALEO released Monday. NALEO’s educational fund sent a letter to the Department of Justice calling for “urgent action in light of recent candidate comments encouraging voter intimidation at the polls this year.” NALEO is asking the DOJ to send poll monitors to rural and urban areas, as well as to places where there have been recent increases in foreign and Puerto Rican-born populations.

In North Carolina, NAACP President the Rev. William Barber II says the civil rights organization has a multipronged approach to attempted voter suppression in that battleground state. The NAACP has sent a letter indicating an intent to sue several boards of election that it says are misusing the voter-challenge provisions, including attempts to remove people who have previously cast ballots from voter rolls.

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