Voter intimidation is defined as intimidating, threatening or coercing any person for the purpose of interfering with their right to vote.
It is a federal crime and punishable by up to one year in prison to attempt to discourage anyone from voting. In Ohio, depending on the facts or the ability to prove the case, it can be a fifth-degree felony. Attorney General Dave Yost discouraged anyone from using scare tactics.
“I would say look in your heart,” Yost said. “If what you’re hoping is, ‘Those people don’t vote,’ whether we’re talking about liberals who are hoping that Trumpers won’t vote or whether we are talking about people on the Republican side of the aisle that are hoping that, ‘Those crazy rioters don’t show up.’ It’s not your job to prevent people from voting, or to hinder them from voting, or to make them think twice about voting."
Examples of voter intimidation, include:
- Physically blocking polling places.
- Using threatening language in or near a polling place.
- Yelling at people or calling them names while they are in line to vote.
- Disrupting or interrogating voters.
- Looking over people’s shoulders while they are voting.
- Questioning voters about their political choices, citizenship status or criminal record.
- Displaying false or misleading signage.
- Spreading false information about voting requirements and procedures.
No one is allowed to be within 100 feet of the polling location or voters who are in line to cast their ballots.
History of voter intimidation
Historically, voter intimidation and suppression have been aimed primarily at people of color in the U.S., said Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a University of Dayton history professor. The practice started after the Civil War, when Black men gained the right to vote during Reconstruction, Lawrence-Sanders said.
Southern states and white militias sought to undermine their right to vote, she said. The militias showed up at the polls and violence erupted as they attempted to intimidated voters.
“African Americans have always been on the side of having to navigate a system of voter suppression,” she said. “It’s been a struggle in many places ... and it is happening now. You have to worry about showing up at a poll and you may have (the far-right fascist group) Proud Boys there."
Intimidation via robocalls
Two men were indicted Tuesday in Cuyahoga County for allegedly devising a robocall scam that attempted to intimidate residents in minority neighborhoods to refrain from voting by mail. Jack Burkman, 54, of Virginia, and 22-year-old Jacob Wohl of California were each indicted on eight counts of communications fraud and seven counts of bribery, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley said.
The Secretary of State and the Ohio Attorney General’s offices received complaints from Cuyahoga County regarding the robocalls, and the FBI was alerted, Yost said in a video news release on Oct. 13. The suspects made 67,396 calls primarily to minority communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Yost said. Of that total, 3,449 went to Ohioans, although it’s not clear if Dayton area residents were targeted.
The indictment accuses Burkman and Wohl of using a voice broadcasting service provider to place the calls. The pre-recorded messages falsely warned people that if they voted by mail, law enforcement, collection agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could use their information for the purposes of pursuing old warrants, collecting outstanding debts and tracking people for mandatory vaccines.
“The right to vote is the most fundamental component of our nation’s democracy,” O’Malley said. “These individuals clearly infringed upon that right in a blatant attempt to suppress votes and undermine the integrity of this election.”
On Oct. 15, the Ohio Department of Public Safety facilitated a virtual meeting regarding election security. The Ohio Mayors Alliance, representatives from the Ohio National Guard, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Ohio Homeland Security, secretary of state and the Ohio State Highway Patrol, police chiefs and the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association participated.
The meeting focused on potential issues that could arise during and after the election, state experts and resources that are available to local jurisdictions, correct protocols to request assistance, experience with past demonstrations and civil unrest, and cyber threats.
“While we cannot and would not comment on any specific threats, we certainly understand this is a high-profile election, and Ohio wants to be prepared to assist our partners before, during, and after the election,” said Kristen Castle, an ODPS spokeswoman.
Locally at the Greene County Board of Elections, strict guidelines are in place that voters, recognized election observers and others must follow, McCoy said, noting that her office is following protocol from Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
Lines are clearly marked outside for voters and signs help guide people, McCoy said. There are also guides who are easy to recognize ― they wear uniforms consisting of a bright blue and white vest that says election ― she said. They are there to answer questions, manage the lines and ensure people vote without any issues.
Voters can also call on the guides if they believe they are being harassed or intimidated, and the complaints will immediately be escalated to MCoy and the deputy director. They will call law enforcement if the individual refuses to keep their distance from voters or the leave the premises, McCoy said.
“Hopefully it wouldn’t escalate to the point where we will need to call law enforcement,” she said.
Voter intimidation on their minds
Kevin and Mary Sanford were among at least 200 people who stood in line to vote early last week at the Greene County Board of Elections. The Bellbrook couple said given all that’s going on in the country in terms of the racial tension, voter intimidation was on their minds when they arrived, as they were among a handful of Black people in line.
“My first impression was, ‘Is this going to be a peaceful two-hour wait?’,” Mary Sanford said.
Kevin and Mary Sanford waited in line for several hours Wednesday to vote at the Greene County Broad of Elections in Xenia. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
But everyone should exercise their right to vote, Kevin Sanford said, and “don’t let anyone turn you around.”
Chris Garner, a Fairborn resident also waiting in line to vote in Greene County last week, said while there have been isolated incidents of voter intimidation, he hasn’t seen any obvious incidents.
Chris Garner of Fairborn waited in line for several hours Wednesday to vote at the Greene County Broad of Elections. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFFI
Ellis Jacobs, a senior attorney at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which is part of the Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition, said he doesn’t believe there will be voter intimidation on Election Day, given the measures that are in place.
“If any of that begins to happen, I think it will be addressed very quickly, first by poll workers, secondly by people who work at the board of elections and thirdly by law enforcement, but only if necessary,” he said. "I don’t expect we’re going to see that type of activity.”
Reporter Chris Stewart contributed to this report.
How to report voter intimidation:
- The Election Protection Hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE
- The U.S. Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline: 800-253-3931; TTY line 877-267-8971
- Local and state officials, including poll workers; your county clerk, elections commissioner, elections supervisor; or your state board of elections