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What is voter intimidation and how concerned should you be?

People cast early ballots in the upcoming midterm elections at a polling station on Tuesday in Anchorage, Alaska.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
People cast early ballots in the upcoming midterm elections at a polling station on Tuesday in Anchorage, Alaska.

Voting is underway for the 2022 midterm elections, and with them come heightened concerns of voter intimidation.

Though the concern is real, the first thing to remember is you will likely have a normal voting experience, says Sean Morales-Doyle, the director of the Voting Rights Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for expanded voter access.

The center released a multi-part guide around voter intimidation in the U.S. and a look at 10 specific states, including Arizona, where a federal judge has limited how groups can monitor people using ballot drop boxes to cast their votes.

Whether you're a seasoned voter or someone who is going to cast your ballot for the first time, here's what you should know about voter intimidation, the laws around it, and what to do if you experience intimidation this election season.

What exactly is voter intimidation?

It can take many forms, but Morales-Doyle says voter intimidation is "any action that intimidates voters and scares them away from, or has the potential to scare them away from, exercising their constitutional right to vote."

When people think of voter intimidation, they may think of in-person tactics, like someone standing inside or outside polling places. This type of behavior can be overtly threatening or just meant to make voters uncomfortable by being near them and talking to them, Morales-Doyle said.

"In some states, there's a process for voters to challenge other voters' eligibility, and if someone were doing that, they could do it in an intimidating way," he said.

"There's also intimidation outside of the polls. And we've seen, for instance, in Arizona in recent weeks, people surveilling drop boxes, videotaping. People taking pictures of their license plates."

Voter intimidation can also take place ahead of people getting to the polls or the ballot drop box. Robocalls, mailers and flyers can also be considered voter intimidation depending on the message being sent.

But it doesn't matter what form it takes when it comes to the law.

"The law against voter intimidation doesn't specify specific conduct that is illegal. It specifies that intimidating voters is illegal," Morales-Doyle said. "And so really, whatever form it might take, if the result is that a person feels uncomfortable exercising their right to vote, then it violates the law against voter intimidation."

What are the protections?

There are many laws that protect against voter intimidation. At the federal level, there's the Voting Rights Act, and others that go back to 1871.

Each of the federal laws act in slightly different ways from one another, Morales-Doyle said, but they all make clear that voter intimidation is a crime. Voter intimidation can result in civil lawsuits and also be prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

States also have their own laws. Some of the state rules are about how elections are conducted and end up helping protect against the possibility of intimidation, Morales-Doyle said.

What's different from 2020?

While voter intimidation is always illegal and a concern during election season, there are some differences in 2022 from the presidential election in 2020. A lot of the differences stem from the disinformation and false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, Morales-Doyle said.

"Now there are people who are actively organizing on the basis of those lies to try to turn people out, to engage in conduct that is either intimidating or runs the risk of becoming intimidating," Morales-Doyle said.

There are also concerns about political violence around the midterm elections, especially after the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks in 2021.

While concerns are real, most people will have a good voting experience

Morales-Doyle said he expects the vast majority of voters will not experience intimidation but will have a normal, and hopefully pleasant, time voting.

"I want to be careful to say that I think there's reason to be concerned that we might see more of this bad behavior in 2022 than in the past, and there's reason to think that it might look a little different than it has in the past," he said. "But by and large, it's not going to impact the voting experiences of most people and that people should go vote with confidence."

If you experience intimidation, there are actions you can take, both at your polling place and elsewhere. You can report intimidation to the poll workers and election officials where you're voting, and you can call the national election protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE or 866-687-8683.

"There are a lot of us who are paying attention and watching closely to make sure that we don't see the kinds of things that we, unfortunately, have already seen in places like Arizona," Morales-Doyle said. "We are prepared to respond rapidly, and we're also prepared to continue that response after the election to make sure that this isn't a problem that we see in future elections."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.

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