The right to vote is a fundamental freedom that protects the other essential freedoms that Americans hold dear. It is at the heart of what it means to be an American citizen. Elections in American should be free, fair, and accessible, and voters should not have to overcome burdensome barriers to cast their ballot.
On Monday, Demos and Common Cause released a new report, "Bullies at the Ballot Box: Protecting the Freedom to Vote Against Wrongful Challenges and Intimidation," which analyzes voter protection laws in 10 key states. We looked at how well these states protect voters from wrongful challenges before and on Election Day, about rules governing poll watchers, and state anti-intimidation laws and federal voting rights protections.
But this fall, there is a great danger that eligible Americans will find themselves facing bullies at the ballot box -- overzealous volunteers who take the law into their own hands to target particular voters.
Tea Party groups like True the Vote and others seek to recruit one million volunteers to challenge voters' eligibility to vote in targeted communities on and before Election Day. They're being told that the election is going to be stolen by "the food stamp army." They say they want to make the experience of voting "like driving and seeing the police following you."
Past examples of abusive practices have been directed towards targeted populations, such as communities of color, students, and those who've faced foreclosure. This attempt to manipulate the voter pool should concern anyone who wants a fair election with a legitimate result that reflects the choices of all eligible Americans.
Voters in recent elections have encountered wrongful challenges and intimidation as partisan groups have launched organized efforts in key battleground states and targeted counties. Members of True the Vote reportedly interfered with voters in 2010 in Harris County Texas - allegedly watching them vote, "hovering over" voters, blocking lines, and engaging in confrontational conversations with election workers. But under Texas law, poll watchers are not even allowed to speak to a voter.
And just this year the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board issued a statement saying "in recent elections we have received disturbing reports and complaints about unacceptable, illegal behavior by observers. Voters expect a calm setting in which to exercise their vote."
The aim of this report is to clarify the rules for everyone, so that any positive civic engagement does not cross the line into voter intimidation and harassment. We all care about voter integrity, but that means making sure all eligible Americans can vote, not creating lists to target certain voters to prevent them from voting.
To be clear, voter intimidation is illegal. Law enforcement at the state and federal level should monitor activity at the polls and stand ready to use the tools at their disposal to protect voters. In many states the laws are voter-friendly, so as long as the laws are properly enforced, voters will be protected. Where state law protections are weak, we call on law enforcement to be particularly aware of the possibility for abuses, and for election officials to train their poll workers and staff to do what they can with the tools available to protect the right of all eligible Americans to vote free of obstruction or intimidation.
There must be zero tolerance for bullying behavior that stands between an eligible voter and her ballot.
Follow Liz Kennedy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LizKennedy_