Election Day is finally here, and in dystopian fashion, so are boarded up storefronts across the country as Americans prepare for mass civil unrest — regardless of the outcome. But as voters anxiously headed to the polls to elect candidates that could quite literally determine the course of history, voter intimidation — especially among Black voters in swing states — is more alive than ever.
Voter intimidation, much like any other form of election-related suppression, is the activity of harassing, threatening, or intimidating people to leave the polls and forfeit their vote. Georgetown Law's Voter Protection Programme gives us a sample of what that intimidation looks like: shouting; following voters to, from, or within polling places; verbal threats of violence; confronting voters while wearing military-style or official-looking uniforms; anything that interferes with someone's ability to vote.
Specifically, Black voter intimidation and suppression has long been part of the fabric of America — with white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members historically using murder, rape, lynching, and other violent tactics to keep Black people from going to the polls. In 2020, conservatives have invested $20 million (£15m) to place 50,000 people to "guard the vote" during early voting and on Election Day, and President Trump has called the poll watchers his “Army for Trump.” With ongoing civil unrest over violence against Black Americans, and a president who openly disparaged the entire Black Lives Matter movement, this year's to suppress Black voters is perhaps one of the largest in modern history.
But even in the weeks leading up to 3rd November, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began advocacy efforts to stop this type of intimidation, filing litigation to prevent coordinated efforts to intimidate Black voters and voters of colour.
As fears of insidious tactics of voter suppression mount, organisers and activists on the ground are prepared to defend Black people’s right to vote. Swing states in particular are seeing organisers showing up in full force to protect people at polling locations. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and surrounding districts, Pennsylvania Stands Up has set up Voter Guardians, and they’ve partnered with other organisations covering polling places in the region as well.
“We have people who are trained as voter guardians and we’re setting up tables at polling locations. We have food and snacks, water, and ‘I voted’ stickers, and all of our guardians are trained in de-escalation,” Onah Ossai, an organiser in Dauphin County, PA for Capital Region Stands Up tells Refinery29.
Though there haven’t been any official reports of voter intimidation in Pennsylvania, organisers there are on the lookout. “The real goal is to protect vulnerable communities from intimidation. We also want to give answers to questions about voting, and try to make the voting experience as easy as possible," says Ossai.
A large part of the voting anxiety has stemmed from so-called “Trump Trains” that have begun showing up around the country — including in New Jersey and New York — where vehicles with Trump flags halted traffic this weekend. Nearly 100 Trump Train drivers showed up to a protest at a high school on Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky. And after crowds of Trump supporters in trucks showed up to polling places in Forth Worth, Texas, concerns about protecting Black voters grew, Ossai explains.
“A solid block of voters that consistently vote Democratic have always been Black people and in particular, that is an area where if people were going to target people, this would be a community where people could find a high concentration of Democratic voters in one spot. That said, we felt it was important to protect Black people and people of colour at the polls in particular after we saw Fort Worth. We wanted to make sure we did not have that here,” says Ossai.
In Sanford, Florida, Danni Adams, a lead organiser with Dream Defenders also has a team of volunteers protecting polls from voter intimidation. Today, she’s spending her time driving to each polling location to make sure no one is intimidating people, and checking in with volunteers at voting sites.
“I’m looking out for the big scary Trump supporter trucks that come around to voting sites. The other day there was a report that they were recording voters so I’m making sure that people aren’t being recorded or being scared away from voting. My job is to make sure that people report to me what’s going on,” Adams tells Refinery29. In Black neighbourhoods in the area, her team is canvassing on the ground and working to make sure all voters have rides to the polls, because there’s a lack of public transportation.
One thing Adams is most concerned about is the rumour of Trump supporters coming out after it’s dark to stoke violence — which is why they’re trying to set up distanced watch parties with masks indoors. “It’s been scary here, there’s been rumours of possibly people being out to get people tonight. I just pray for our safety and hope that everyone who goes to vote and go to watch parties come home, and that hopefully when it gets dark at 6 here everyone is safe,” says Adams. “We want all our people to get out to vote but there’s a different tone that Trump supporters have in small, rural places like this where you can easily find out where people live.”
Just like in Pennsylvania, people at poll sites are there to monitor the situation and de-escalate if anything happens. “We don’t want the police to get involved. We want to be able to de-escalate first,” says Adams.
While voter intimidation might conjure ideas of only violent tactics to scare voters away from the polls, there are other kinds of intimidation that people might not necessarily recognise as such at first. “There are many forms that voter intimidation can take and it’s important to look out for all of them,” says Ossai. Police officers standing too close to polling places when they’re not needed, parking authorities targeting people and ticketing them can all be forms of intimidation, as well as asking people to provide ID when they shouldn’t have to. “It can also be parades of trucks, large rallies with partisan gear. In a COVID-19 struck world, it can also look like people refusing to wear masks,” says Ossai. Because of this, Ossai says all guardians employed to polling stations there have masks to hand out to people if they need them, so they know they're not alone during such scary times.
The intentions to protect community and show up for each other is similar in Florida. “We’re doing this because we have to trust and believe in community,” Adams says of her work in Florida. “We’re working to all keep each other safe and let Black people know there isn’t much to do except go out and vote because we have the right to be there. Fear cannot keep us away from the polls. What we do have is each other and people in our community fighting against white supremacy.”