At a Pennsylvania rally in October, Donald Trump encouraged his most fervent followers to monitor polls, to "make sure that this election is not stolen from us ... and everybody knows what I'm talking about." Because Trump's rhetoric is about as subtle as his taste in interior design, it seems fairly clear that he's talking about having his (mostly white) supporters potentially harass and intimidate the (mostly black and brown) voters in places like Philadelphia. A senior Trump official made this plain in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek when he said, "We have three major voter suppression operations under way," aimed at young women, African Americans, and white liberals. This is deeply upsetting for anyone who cares about enfranchisement, common decency, and true American values, and it can make you feel pretty helpless against this possible injustice.
But we're not helpless at all. I called up Jennifer Clark, a counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, to ask what individual voters can do to help push back against potential voter suppression efforts, which don't just start and end at the polling places. Clark and I discussed the spate of laws various states have been passing to keep voters off the rolls in the first place, what to do if you are harassed or intimidated at the polls (or if you see someone else being harassed or intimidated), and why voting at the state level matters.
Jessica Grose: What are some of the basic issues we're facing with voter suppression right now?
Jennifer Clark: Since around 2010, we've seen a real wave of restrictive voting laws. Some of those target things like voter registration, whether it's making it more difficult for individuals to register to vote or for groups [whose] mission is to go out and get people signed up to vote. We have also seen laws that are more specifically targeted to those who are already registered to vote, like strict photo-ID laws and rolling back early voting.
There was an increase in 2013 when the Supreme Court issued a decision in Shelby County which brought a lot of states that had a history of discrimination in voting out from underneath what's called preclearance requirements. Those requirements forced states to prove that laws weren't discriminatory before they put them into effect. The new laws make it harder for people in general to get registered and to vote, and in particular tend to make it harder for minority voters.
Another thing that we're seeing, in particular in this election, is calls for policing of polling places. In many jurisdictions there are officially appointed poll watchers, often appointed by both parties. But what we're talking about in this election is self-appointed poll watchers who would want to harass or to intimidate voters that they don't think belong there, or that they think are illegitimate for whatever reason. We'll see if that actually happens on Election Day, but there have certainly been calls for it, and that's upsetting.
JG: What can the individual voter do to push back against these disparate forms of voter suppression?
JC: One, they should try their hardest not to be intimidated or discouraged. Another thing that voters can do to push back is they can get to know the laws in their state around voter intimidation and harassment. If they feel like they're being intimidated or harassed at a polling place, or they feel that someone else is being intimidated or harassed, there are resources. Calling your local election official is a great first step, because local election officials are very invested in this process going smoothly.