Every voter has the right to cast a ballot safely and without having to worry about interference, harassment or intimidation at polling places.
This contentious election season, there have been some concerns, though, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s frequent – and unfounded — accusations about systemic election fraud. He, and others in his orbit, has encouraged supporters to watch polling places. His son has called for “an army” of “able-bodied” election observers to show up at polls on Nov. 3.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford said Trump “wasn’t talking about poll watching. He was talking about voter intimidation.” He said any effort to stand between Nevadans and their vote will not be tolerated.
“Believe me when I say it: You do it, and you will be prosecuted,” Ford tweeted on Sept. 29.
So, what is the law in Nevada and what should voters do if they think they experience interference or intimidation at in-person polling places? We checked the statutes and asked election officials.
Poll watching is legal; interference isn’t
Nevada and other states authorize official poll watchers, as do political parties. Those people aren’t allowed to interact directly with voters, but are there to help insure laws and regulations are followed. If they have concerns, they are allowed to raise them only with election officials.
Voter intimidation is illegal, but one person’s intimidation may be viewed as someone else’s right of free speech. In Fairfax, Va., for example, pro-Trump demonstrators staged a rally near an early voting site on Sept. 20. Some voters told officials they felt intimidated, but the demonstrators cited their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.
The presence of electioneering or other partisan activity near polls doesn’t automatically rise to the level of interference. It’s a distinction based on whether those involved directly engage with voters and their distance from the polling place.
“Voters need to keep in mind that electioneering is permitted beyond 100 feet of the polling place entrance, but if it rises to the level of voter intimidation, it needs to be reported,” said Jennifer A. Russell, public information officer for the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office. The state will have people stationed in every county who will report suspicious or inappropriate activity to officials.
If voters feel too intimidated to even enter the polling place, they may call the Secretary of State’s Elections Division at 775-684-5705 and make a report, Russell said. The office also has an FAQ section about elections and polling places on its website. “If the voters do enter the location, they should notify an election worker (about what) they encountered on the way in or call our Elections Division.”
What constitutes voter intimidation?
What’s intimidation to one person may be only an annoyance to another. But there are examples of what constitutes such crimes.
It’s illegal to intimidate voters and a federal crime to “intimidate, threaten, (or) coerce … any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of (that) other person to vote or to vote as he may choose.” Examples of intimidation may include aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record, or other qualifications to vote; falsely claiming to be an election official; displaying false or misleading signs about voter fraud and related criminal penalties; other forms of harassment, particularly those targeting non-English speakers and voters of color.
In summary, voter intimidation is when someone attempts to sway a voter’s choice or prevent them from voting by creating a hostile verbal or physical environment.
Spreading false information about voter requirements, such as claiming voters must speak English, also is considered voter intimidation, the American Civil Liberties Union says (a PDF). People asking voters to produce personal identification in order to vote also can be considered intimidation, according to the ACLU. The law in the Silver State says a signature is enough to verify a voter’s identity. “If a person’s name appears in the election board register or if the person provides an affirmation pursuant to statute, the person is entitled to vote,” according to the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office, “and must sign his or her name in the election board register when he or she appears at the polling place to vote.”
There is no ‘voter ID’ law in Nevada
Nevada law states that a voter does not need to present an identification card to vote as long as his or her name appears in the election board register and the voter’s signature matches the signature on the record. Identification is only required where an individual registered to vote by mail or computer, and has never voted in a federal election in Nevada.
Bethany Drysdale, communications manager for Washoe County, said every polling location has a polling place manager who is trained in safety procedures and has a resource toolkit to help handle questions or concerns that come up, including who to call if a situation escalates.
“If a voter feels they’re in immediate danger, they should of course call 911,” she said. “The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments have been briefed on all the polling locations and have their own plans in place for if safety issues arise.”
Voter intimidation carries stiff penalties
Along with voter fraud like double voting and campaign finance crime, voter intimidation is a federal crime. If the law is violated, the perpetrator could be found guilty and sentenced up to one year in prison, up to a $1,000 fine, or both. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also prohibit voter intimidation.
In the Silver State, the crimes of voter intimidation and interference with elections is defined in Chapter 293 of the Nevada Revised Statutes. That chapter lists the ways in which it’s unlawful for people to interfere with another person’s ability to vote. Among the proscribed activities: asking someone “inside the polling place” how the person intends to vote and remaining “in or outside of any polling place so as to interfere with the conduct of the election.”
Law school gives advice about ‘militias’ at polls
People dressed in faux battle gear and carrying military-style long guns have appeared this year at various protests in Nevada, including demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions, Black Lives Matter marches and at anti-pedophilia protests in Reno. That raises a concern that wanna-be “militia” members might appear at some polling places on Election Day as well.
Georgetown University Law Center has created fact sheets for all 50 states on illegal militias and what to do if voters encounter them. The fact sheet for Nevada explains state law and provides a checklist on how to spot activities of a “private militia.” That term is defined as a group that seems to engage in law enforcement activities without authorization by state or federal officials. Their members are often armed and wearing uniforms or identifying insignias, and they often believe they have legal authority to protect property or control crowds. But the law school warns that no private group has such authority and that every state bans unauthorized militias from such activity.
Georgetown University Law Center’s fact sheet for Nevada is reproduced at the end of this article and can also be downloaded as a PDF from the law school’s site.
The Reno News & Review has an updated election guide on its website that provides information about tracking mail-in ballots through the postal system, lists of drop-off and early voting sites, and links to apps that allow voters to check on wait times at the voting sites.