What is voter intimidation?

What kinds of acts constitute voter intimidation?  When can election day mischief become a serious crime? Learn the answers to these questions and some surprising examples of voter intimidation in our recent history.


  Suraj Patel is an attorney and an adjunct professor of ethics at NYU Stern School of Business and has served as an aide to various political campaigns and administrations. 

What is voter intimidation? Brief Transcript

Suraj Patel: Let’s say I’m a hardcore Democrat, and I really want my candidate to win so I get a bunch of my friends together and we start calling a Republican district and telling people to vote on the wrong day.

Donald Trump: Make sure you get out and vote November 28.

Suraj Patel: Genius, right? No. That’s actually voter intimidation. Hi, you’re watching TalksOnLaw, and I’m Suraj Patel.

So what is voter intimidation? Well the law expressly prohibits any conduct that threatens, intimidates, coerces a person to vote or not vote or vote in a certain way. Now, voter intimidation is not limited to just actual physical or verbal threats, like actually showing up at a polling place, raising your voice, threatening someone, including threatening using a firearm. There are instances in American history where poll monitors or sheriffs would sit in a polling place with a gun and recommend to people not to vote. That history is actually why many states ban police uniforms or military garb or any other official looking clothing. Even outside of obvious forms of voter intimidation like confrontations, deceptive practices constitute voter intimidation. Let’s go back to my first example. What if I misled voters into not knowing the exact correct details about when to vote, where to vote, or how to vote. And this has happened many times. In fact, in 2010, in the gubernatorial election in Maryland, the Republican candidate’s campaign manager ordered a 100,000 person robocall before polls closed to notify voters that the outcome had already been determined.

Robocall: I’m calling to let everyone know that Governor O’Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct and we [inaudible]. We’re ok. Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you.

Suraj Patel: In effect, tamping down turnout because people thought their votes wouldn’t matter. Another example was in 2004 in Franklin, Ohio when flyers were dropped all over the county notifying people that due to heavy turnout, Republicans were supposed to vote on Tuesday and Democrats should wait till Wednesday, the day after the election would have already been conducted, thereby stopping them from voting. That’s voter intimidation.

Now, voter intimidation carries with it serious penalties. Aside from being in violation of the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws, most states have explicit prohibitions on voter intimidation themselves. In Pennsylvania, for example, the punishment for voter intimidation is an up to $15,000 fine or 7 years in prison.

So you can see why these laws are in place. I mean we have a long and complicated history with voter intimidation both from public and private actors. And these laws were put in place to ensure the fairness and integrity of our elections and your right to vote. I’m Suraj Patel. Thanks for watching TalksOnLaw.