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As Voter Intimidation Efforts Ramp Up, a 2016 ‘Poll Watcher’ Meme Recirculates

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"If an alleged 'poll watcher' tries to impede you at the voting booth ... tell him to kindly step out of the way, take his picture with a cell phone, [and] call the FBI."

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On October 24 2022, a popular Imgur repost addressed voter intimidation, presented in a broader context of “poll watchers” leading up to the U.S. midterm election:

Reposting  ICYMI: Voting info. 

‘Voting is Your Right as a Citizen,’ Examples and Evolution

White text against a blue backdrop read:

VOTING IS YOUR RIGHT AS A CITIZEN

Wisconsin ‘Child Labor Laws’ Me...
Wisconsin ‘Child Labor Laws’ Meme

If an alleged “poll watcher” tries to impede you at the voting booth:

1 – Tell him to kindly step out of the way

2 – Take his picture with a cell phone

3 – Call the FBI

FBI Civil Rights Division staff will be available by phone to receive complaints related to ballot access (202)397-2767 or toll-free at (800)253-3931. U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section can be reached at (202) 307-2767 or toll-free at (800) 253-3931.

PLEASE PASS THIS ON.

The Imgur post appeared not long after reports began to emerge of voter intimidation at Arizona ballot drop boxes. And on October 19 2022, the New York Times reported a string of questionable voting-related arrests made in Florida in the lead up to the 2022 midterms:

Legal experts, including at least one Republican state legislator, have said that many if not all of the 20 arrests [related to voting in Florida] appear unjustified because the supposed perpetrators had no idea that they were breaking the law. In Florida, a conviction of voter fraud requires proof of intent.

Some defendants have said they registered to vote only after being wrongly assured that they could cast ballots under the constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to many former felons. In fact, the amendment excluded people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, who must apply separately to have their rights reinstated.

All of the 20 defendants had been convicted of murder or sex crimes. But each of them was issued a registration card after an application was approved by the secretary of state.

On the same day the meme appeared on Imgur, Texas-based news station KRGV published “More poll watchers expected at voting sites,” which quoted Cameron County elections administrator Remi Garza saying that poll watchers were “just there to observe,” but the short article emphasized how poll watchers could cause “legal trouble for [any voter] caught breaking any of the rules”:

“There have been concerns expressed that someone may accuse them of interfering with a poll watcher or that they violated the code, and they’re subject to either civil penalties or criminal penalties,” Garza said.

If a poll watcher sees anything out of the ordinary, it could result in legal trouble for the person caught breaking any of the rules.

The original meme was shared no later than October 12 2016. On that day, it was submitted to both Imgur and Reddit’s r/EnoughTrumpSpam; commenters on both posts expressed concerns about voter intimidation:

What to do if Trump’s brownshirts try to intimidate you from voting from EnoughTrumpSpam

Voter Intimidation in 2016 and 2022

In the six years between the meme’s 2016 emergence and the October 2022 pre-election period in the United States, the topic of poll watchers as a form of voter intimidation arose intermittently. In April 2021, the Brennan Center for Justice published an in-depth analysis of the topic, highlighting myriad state-level bills aimed at expanding the scope of election observers.

It explained the initial role of “poll watchers,” describing an already blurry line between observation and intimidation as it related to polling places. The Brennan Center then pinpointed legislation aimed at blurring the line further in states like Texas:

Poll watchers are individuals, often appointed by a candidate or by a political party, who observe the election process — whether at polling places or as ballots are reviewed and counted. Each state has its own laws on what watchers may and may not do, what qualifications and training they must have, who can appoint watchers, and how many can serve at a given location.

Because watchers may be present when people are voting, most states have measures in place to protect against voter intimidation and voter harassment (on top of federal voter intimidation protections). For example, some states expressly prohibit watchers from interacting with or assisting voters. Others require watchers to stay within a certain area of the polling location.

As of April 15, 2021, state lawmakers have introduced at least 40 bills in 20 different states that would expand the powers of poll watchers. Of those, 12 bills are moving in six states. The plurality of bills introduced and currently moving have been filed in Texas. Two bills have been enacted into law (GA SB 202, IA SF 413).

Expanded Observation Access

At least thirty-three bills have been introduced to give watchers more authority to observe voters and election officials, with fewer limitations on their actions at polling places and other locations, increasing the possibility of voter intimidation and harassment. Eleven such bills are moving. One bill (GA SB 202) has been enacted into law.

In October 2020, the Institute for Constitutional Advancement and Advocacy at Georgetown Law published “Fact Sheet: Protecting Against Voter Intimidation [PDF],” an explainer about an uptick in voter intimidation which touched on the role of poll watchers. A section on examples of voter intimidation explained how efforts to impede voting were frequently difficult to detect:

The U.S. Department of Justice has explained that voter intimidation is conduct that is intended to compel prospective voters to vote against their preferences, or to not vote at all, through activity that is reasonably calculated to instill fear. Some actions that ordinarily would be legal may be unlawful if they are intended to intimidate voters.

Voter intimidation is often subtle and context-dependent, so it can be difficult to identify in advance. Here are some examples of conduct near polling sites that likely would constitute illegal voter intimidation, although other conduct could also qualify[.]

Provided examples of efforts to intimidate voters included:

  • Violent behavior inside or outside the polling site
  • Confronting voters while wearing military-style or official-looking uniforms
  • Brandishing firearms or the intimidating display of firearms
  • Disrupting voting lines or blocking the entrance to the polling place
  • Following voters to, from, or within the polling place
  • Verbal threats of violence
  • Spreading false information about voter fraud, voting requirements, or related criminal penalties
  • Aggressively approaching voters’ vehicles or writing down voters’ license plate numbers
  • Harassing voters, aggressively questioning them about their qualifications to vote 

Finally, a section about poll watchers reinforced that their presence should not be “used for purposes of intimidation,” offering advice for voters “challenged” by poll watchers:

State law regulates those who are permitted to observe the voting process within a polling place, sometimes called “poll watchers” or “election observers,” and what those observers are permitted to do. State law also governs who is permitted to challenge a voter’s qualifications to vote and what a challenger must show to make such a challenge. These laws vary from state to state. Election officials should be familiar with these laws to prevent unauthorized observation or challenges and to ensure that such activities are not used for purposes of intimidation. Even if your qualifications to vote are challenged, you may still cast a regular ballot unless that challenge is sustained, and, at a minimum, you always have the right to cast a provisional ballot before leaving the polling site.

An undated American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, PDF) resource about voter intimidation also addressed poll watchers at length, advising citizens:

WHAT CAN POLL MONITORS DO?

Generally, certified poll monitors are allowed inside the polling place, but states may limit the number of poll monitors per candidate/party at any given time. In many states, certified poll monitors may inspect the pollbooks. In many states, certified poll monitors can challenge the qualifications of voters.

Unofficial/self-designated election observers are not permitted inside a polling place.

WHAT CAN POLL MONITORS NOT DO?

Poll monitors are not usually allowed in the “enclosed space” that includes the voting machines, the voting booth, or the area immediately around the poll workers’ tables. In many states, poll monitors may observe within a reasonable distance of the pollworkers’ table, but not interact directly with voters. In many states, poll monitors may not inspect the poll books when voters are present.

Who to Call if ‘Poll Watchers’ Engage in Voter Intimidation in 2022

In October 2020, the meme was the subject of a fact check by VERIFY, and perplexingly rated “false.” A closer examination of the fact check indicated validated the concerns raised by the meme — but VERIFY provided different advice than the meme for any voters intimidated at the polls in 2020, and warned readers about variations by state with laws regarding photography at polling places:

“Our general advice to voters who feel intimidated at the polls would be to alert the officials at the polling place about the situation,” said Nicolas Y. Riley of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center … Riley recommends calling Election Protection (866-OUR-VOTE), a nonpartisan coalition of 100 local, state and national partners that works to ensure voter rights about an incident.

[…]

“Many states — but not all — prohibit people from recording or photographing activity that occurs inside the polls on Election Day,” Riley said. Some states also restrict recording or photographing people outside the polls without their consent.

VERIFY also directed readers to the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. An undated page on the group’s site, “What to Do if You Experience Intimidation at the Polls,” listed “six things you should do if you experience or witness intimidation.”

First on the list was a reminder that voter intimidation was a federal crime under “18 U.S. Code Section 594”:

First things first, it’s important to know that voter intimidation is a federal crime; you will go to jail. “Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such other person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, at any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing such candidate, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both,” reads 18 U.S. Code Section 594.

The relevant federal law quoted above is accessible here. The Advancement Project recommended that voters experiencing harassment or intimidation “notify your local election official at your polling place,” but did not recommend voters “call the FBI”:

Call Election Protection at 866-OUR-VOTE

In addition to notifying local authorities, voters concerned that they are being targeted should immediately call the Election Protection Hotline at 1(866)-OUR-VOTE. Voter helplines are led by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. For Spanish speakers, the number is (888)-Ve-Y-Vota protection efforts are led by trained professionals at the NALEO Educational Fund, The number for Asian language speakers is (888)-API-VOTE (led by APIAVote & Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC).

Voters were advised to “document the conduct” through reports to local election authorities, and they were also discouraged from confronting individuals who attempted to intimidate voters. Election Protection maintained an active web presence and social media channels in October 2022, and their site provided several “hotlines” for voters:

Find out all you need to know about midterm elections in 2022. Have questions about voter registration deadlines, requesting absentee or mail-in ballots, or how to vote in-person during early voting or on Election Day? Call or text 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to speak with a trained Election Protection volunteer. More information about voting in your state can be found below.

Election Protection Hotlines

ENGLISH 866-OUR-VOTE866-687-8683
SPANISH/ENGLISH 888-VE-Y-VOTA888-839-8682
ASIAN LANGUAGES/ENGLISH 888-API-VOTE888-274-8683
ARABIC/ENGLISH 844-YALLA-US844-925-5287

In addition to phone numbers listed above, the nonpartisan Election Protection offered web-based chat assistance as well as text message guidance.

Summary

On October 24 2022, an Imgur account shared an election meme with advice for what to do if “an alleged ‘poll watcher’ tries to impede you at the voting booth.” That meme was first shared no later than October 12 2016, amid concerns about voter intimidation in the 2016 United States general election.

Voter intimidation reports appeared in the news in October 2022, many concerning “alleged poll watchers” in states like Arizona. In April 2021, the Brennan Center reported “at least 40 bills in 20 different states that would expand the powers of poll watchers,” raising concerns about their use as a means of intimidating voters in the 2022 election cycle.

Content of the long-circulating meme correctly advised voters not to allow poll watchers to interfere with their right to vote or scare them away from polling places. A 2020 VERIFY fact check rated the meme false based on the resources it provided, but not with respect to efforts to intimidate voters.

Voting rights advocates provided slightly different advice for people who encountered voter intimidation at the polls in November 2022, suggesting voters report the conduct to local elections officials, and advising them to immediately contact non-partisan advocacy groups like Election Protection.