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Voters at the polls

People vote in the Super Tuesday primary at Centreville High School in Virginia on March 1, 2016. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

'Alarming': Nearly 1/3 in US Worry About Violence, Intimidation at Polls

"The fear people are experiencing—especially Black people, Hispanic people, and young people—is a form of voter suppression that needs to be addressed before the election," said one expert.

Jessica Corbett

"This is a shameful failure of our democracy."

That's what Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE), said Thursday in response to survey results that show notable shares of U.S. voters are afraid of encountering intimidation or violence at polling stations.

The poll, commissioned by GPAHE and conducted by Edge Research in late July, follows former President Donald Trump's "Big Lie" about the 2020 presidential election results as well as recent failures by congressional Democrats to pass comprehensive voting rights legislation amid a "tidal wave" of GOP-led voter suppression efforts.

The new findings were also published just a few months before U.S. voters will cast their ballots in the consequential November midterm elections. The data shows that only 41% of Americans feel safe at a polling place.

At both the local and national levels, about a quarter to a third of respondents worry about politically motivated poll workers intimidating voters; poll workers and vote counters being intimidated by activists; groups like the Proud Boys—a hate group involved in the January 6, 2021 insurrection—serving as poll watchers; voters, especially people of color, being harassed; people not being allowed to cast a ballot; people carrying weapons at polling places; and a shooting or other violent attack on Election Day.

fear of polls graphic

The results indicate that voters' fears impact political participation on several fronts: 42% are afraid to attend a march or rally, 35% are nervous about putting up a window or yard sign, 23% are concerned about opening their door to a canvasser, 19% worry about attending a candidate forum, and 13% fear going to vote.

"Heightened levels of concern among young people and Black and Hispanic people are driving many of these numbers, while white people express lower than average concern about all polling place scenarios except fraud, even though research has shown that voter fraud does not exist on any significant level," GPAHE highlighted.

For example, 18% of both Black and Hispanic Americans are afraid to vote—and among all Generation Z voters, or those ages 18 to 25, that figure is 23%.

GPAHE co-founder and president Wendy Via said that "these findings are extremely alarming."

Via pointed out that the survey also asked about Americans feeling fear related to multiple major issues—from political and racial division to loosening gun regulations—and in various spaces, including concerts and festivals, government buildings, grocery stores, movie theaters, places of worship, restaurants, schools, and workplaces.

"Not only are people afraid as they go about their daily lives, they are scared they will face intimidation and threats at their own polling places," she said. "The fear people are experiencing—especially Black people, Hispanic people, and young people—is a form of voter suppression that needs to be addressed before the election."

Along with releasing the survey results, GPAHE sent a memo to U.S. secretaries of state about the data. As the group summarized in a statement, it also offered recommendations:

  • Ban all weapons in and around polling places;
  • Communicate early and clearly plans and assurances that the elections will be fair and honest;
  • Use the authority of the secretary of state offices to counter any misinformation about the elections;
  • Take action to ensure that the polls will be safe for voters, workers, and volunteers; and
  • Communicate to the public instructions for what a voter should do if intimidated or harassed.

The poll shows that a majority of respondents—across party lines and including gun owners—believe Americans should be banned from carrying firearms at polling stations.

According to the memo, "Currently, a total of 12 states have prohibitions on carrying firearms at polling places, eight states prohibit both open carry and concealed carry at the polls, and four prohibit concealed carry only."

The document declares that "given the nationwide concerns around the November elections and the harassing behavior already witnessed during the primaries, GPAHE's survey data is a call to action for secretaries of state."

Beirich similarly stressed that state and local leaders must urgently do more.

"Our states are failing communities that have been historically disenfranchised, and they are failing young voters," she said. "In an environment where white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys are showing up at parades, town halls, campaign rallies, and school board meetings, and where people are carrying their AR-15s into campaign events, it's no wonder that people are more afraid."

The memo and poll come after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday held a virtual discussion with Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. and about 750 election officials and workers.

The DOJ's Election Threats Task Force also released updates on its first year of work, including that approximately 11% of more than 1,000 contacts "reported as hostile or harassing by the election community" met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation.

"Officials in states with close elections and post-election contests were more likely to receive threats," a department statement said, adding that "58% of the total of potentially criminal threats were in states that underwent 2020 post-election lawsuits, recounts, and audits, such as Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin."

During a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Polite said the DOJ's investigations into threats against election workers have led to charges in five cases and one conviction, and he expects more charges are coming.

"The trauma experienced in this community," he said of election workers, "is profound and unprecedented."

Also on Monday, a federal judge sentenced Guy Wesley Reffitt—the first defendant convicted at trial in the DOJ's criminal inquiry into the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—to over seven years in prison.

Reffitt, the department noted, is among more than 850 individuals who "have been arrested in nearly all 50 states for crimes related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol, including over 260 individuals charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement."


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