DOJ to monitor polling sites across country amid fears of voter intimidation

Voters outside a polling site in Warwick, R.I., pass a sign that reads: Voter entrance.
Voters pass a sign outside a polling site in Warwick, R.I., on Monday after casting their ballots on the last day of early voting before the midterm elections. (David Goldman/AP)

Justice Department workers will be dispatched to polling sites across 24 states on Tuesday to monitor compliance with federal voting rights laws during the 2022 midterm elections.

According to a press release announcing the plan on Monday, monitors will include personnel from the Justice Department’s civil rights division and U.S. attorneys’ offices, as well as the Office of Personnel Management. Civil rights division personnel will also be available all day on Tuesday to take complaints from the public regarding potential voting rights law violations on Election Day, the DOJ said.

The announcement comes amid heightened concerns about possible voter intimidation and harassment of election workers from partisan poll watchers who have been showing up at early voting sites and ballot drop boxes in various parts of the country in the run-up to Election Day.

Trump supporters shout and wave flags outside the John F. Kennedy Library polling station in Hialeah, Fla.
Trump supporters outside a polling station in Hialeah, Fla., on Oct. 19, 2020, as early voting begins for the presidential election. (Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters)

In some places, such efforts have already resulted in alleged acts of voter intimidation.

According to ABC News, as of Monday, the Arizona secretary of state’s office (led by Katie Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for governor) had referred a total of 18 complaints of alleged voter intimidation and harassment to local and federal law enforcement since early voting began in the state last month.

Just one of those complaints was related to the alleged harassment of election officials; the rest were reportedly related to allegations of voter intimidation at ballot drop boxes, where voters have reportedly described encountering “camo clad people” taking pictures and “armed individuals dressed in tactical gear.”

The allegedly aggressive surveillance of Arizona voters turning in early ballots has prompted local law enforcement officials like Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone to step up security outside drop box locations. It has also become the subject of a pair of lawsuits filed by voter advocacy groups — and backed by the Justice Department — accusing one particular right-wing group of carrying out a “coordinated vigilante intimidation campaign” at drop box locations “with the express purpose of deterring voters ... from depositing their ballots.

A sign at an event for Democratic candidate for Florida governor Charlie Crist reads: Let my people vote.
An event for Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist was held on Sunday in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Last week, the Trump-appointed federal judge overseeing those lawsuits issued a temporary restraining order that, among other restrictions, bars that group from taking photos or videos of voters, disseminating voter information online and “making false statements” about Arizona’s laws regarding early voting and from openly carrying firearms or wearing visible body armor within 250 feet of ballot boxes.

While Arizona has been ground zero for such activities, it’s not alone. On Friday, Reuters reported that officials in North Carolina had registered 14 reports of potential voter intimidation or interference with election workers with the state’s board of elections.

Similar surveillance campaigns targeting ballot drop boxes and polling locations in several other states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan have also raised concerns for election officials about potential voter intimidation in the run-up to Election Day.

The Justice Department did not specify whether recent reports of potential voter intimidation or threats of harassment influenced the list of jurisdictions where federal monitors would be deployed on Tuesday. The press release noted that “since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Division has regularly monitored elections in the field in jurisdictions around the country to protect the rights of voters.”

Voters lined up along a sidewalk, waiting to cast their ballots in Rydal, Pa., on Tuesday.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in Rydal, Pa., on Tuesday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

However, a spokesperson for the department’s civil rights division confirmed that the 64 jurisdictions identified in Monday’s announcement marked a substantial increase from the 44 jurisdictions where federal monitors were deployed in 2020 and the 35 that were monitored by the Justice Department in 2018. As the Washington Post noted, the jurisdictions that will be monitored on Tuesday include several that did not receive monitors during the 2020 election, including some that either were the sites of contentious 2020 election disputes or have seen more recent signs of potential voter intimidation.

It’s no coincidence that many of the states now facing threats of election disruption were also at the center of then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. As early as June, the FBI began warning that threats against election workers in the 2022 midterms would likely be more prevalent in “states that underwent 2020 public election disputes, recounts, and audits, such as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin.”

Last month, in a guide to federal and state laws governing voter intimidation, the Brennan Center for Justice listed an almost identical group of states among the 10 where, it said, “the risk of disruption is especially high based on the volume of false allegations and anti-voter activity over the past few years.”

The recent mobilization of vigilante poll monitors has been largely driven by right-wing activists, organizations and even some Trump-aligned Republican officials and sheriffs who have sought to rally his supporters to action around the false notion that the 2020 presidential election was rigged — and in particular the popular yet wholly unsubstantiated claims about so-called mules stuffing drop boxes with fraudulent ballots.

Kaitlin Farrell holds her daughter as she fills out her ballot at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Kaitlin Farrell holds her daughter as she fills out her ballot on Tuesday at the Brooklyn Museum polling site in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

“There does seem to be certainly greater concern this time around because of what seems like a greater prevalence of false conspiracy theories being peddled around and groups organizing around those theories in different states,” Davin Rosborough, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, told Yahoo News in an interview Monday.

The ACLU is among a number of nationwide voter advocacy groups, along with the Brennan Center and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, that have been tracking efforts to disrupt the 2022 elections and attempting to educate voters and election workers alike on the laws regarding legal election monitoring and illegal voter intimidation.

Rosborough said the U.S. has dealt with violence at the polls and other types of voter intimidation tactics at different times throughout its history, as exemplified by the various state and federal statutes that have been passed to prevent it. But, he said, conduct like that which has been reported in Arizona is “pretty unprecedented in recent years.”

States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes free and fair elections, has also published a handful of guidelines in recent days for law enforcement, election officials and the general public to help navigate potential disruptions to the election process.

A security guard watches over a ballot drop box in Phoenix on Monday.
A security guard watches over a ballot drop box in Phoenix on Monday. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The group’s senior counsel, Katie Reisner, who leads its work on countering political violence, told Yahoo News that “the propensity for disinformation to become the justification for acts of voter intimidation” is just one “distinguishing feature between this election and prior elections.”

The other, she said, is the historic number of Americans — more than 40 million and counting — who will have already cast their ballots by the time the polls open on Tuesday, thanks to pandemic-era expansions to mail-in ballots and early voting throughout the country.

On the one hand, Reisner said, the increased use of mail-in ballots and drop boxes provides opportunities for some of the voter intimidation efforts seen in the lead-up to Election Day. But at the same time, she said, because so many people have now already voted, any intimidation efforts that may be undertaken on Tuesday will likely have less of an impact.

“I think, on balance, an increase in the percentage of people who vote by mail is good for the safety and security of elections, and it’s good for the safety of voters, even with some of what we’re seeing at ballot drop boxes,” she said.

Reisner also noted that while she and her colleagues will be closely monitoring any incidents of voter intimidation that are reported on Tuesday, their concern is actually greater for the post-Election Day period.

“In the days following the election is when we’ll have even [more] heightened attention for other acts of political violence,” she said.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballot at Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot at Fox Theatre in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In the meantime, Bill Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, cautioned against inadvertently discouraging those who have not yet voted from doing so by overamplifying the potential risk of harassment at the polls.

“The last thing I want to do is tell everybody to be so worried about extremism on the margins that we actually become our own worst enemy in terms of advancing our democracy,” he told Yahoo News.

Braniff, an Army veteran, is also a co-founder and board member of Vet the Vote, a nonpartisan group that has recruited 63,000 military veterans to volunteer as poll workers. He spoke to Yahoo News on Monday while on his way to set up his local polling station, where he would be serving as an election judge on Tuesday.

He said that the recent rise in threats or harassment targeted at poll workers is “an unfortunate reality” — not to mention the cause of the nationwide shortage of election officials that Vet the Vote was created to fill. Still, Braniff insisted that those who haven’t already voted early “should feel confident voting tomorrow.”

“Our election infrastructure is a big battleship, and it will be afloat tomorrow evening and the day after, just fine,” he said. “There might be small leaks here and there, small maintenance issues that should be addressed, but in general, this is a shipshape operation, and people should understand that.”