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US voters face intimidation ahead of presidential election by caravans, armed militias, rallies

Caravans of Trump supporters in their vehicles were spotted in Texas (left), New Jersey (center), and New York (right) the weekend before the US presidential election.
Caravans of Trump supporters in their vehicles were spotted in Texas (left), New Jersey (center), and New York (right) the weekend before the US presidential election.
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As American voters head to the polls on November 3, threats of voter suppression and intimidation have been shared widely in the media and on social networks. This year, voters are navigating threats of militia mobilisation, outdoor rallies near polling places, and highways blocked by cars waving flags. The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to Damon Hewitt, the executive vice president of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to talk about the major threats to fair voting in the United States this year. 

The Lawyer’s Committee manages the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, the largest nonpartisan voter hotline in the United States. Since July, they have received more than 100,000 calls, twice as many as usual in an election year. 

Hewitt estimates that this increase is, in part, due to changes in voting procedures during the Covid-19 pandemic:

 

We're seeing a lot of calls having to do with confusion about absentee or by-mail voting, because the rules are changing. There's ongoing litigation by people who want to constrain democracy by limiting how many people can vote, or what their options are to vote, or how they can turn their ballots in. We're also getting calls about potential cases of voter intimidation, where people who have long rifles at polling places, or inappropriate police presence in some cases.

The weekend before Election Day in the United States was marked by a visible mobilisation from supporters of US President Donald Trump. Highway convoys were seen in several American cities. 

In Texas, Trump supporters used their vehicles to surround a Biden campaign bus on October 31. A Biden campaign official reported that the convoy tried to "slow the bus down and run it off the road”, a claim which is currently under FBI investigation

Videos of the convoy have been shared widely online, with many Trump supporters alleging that the bus was trying to push the surrounding cars off the road. 

A video posted to Twitter October 31 shows a group of vehicles flying Trump flags surrounding a Biden campaign bus on a highway in Texas. 

On November 1, highways were blocked in New York and New Jersey by caravans of vehicles emblazoned with “Trump 2020” flags. 

A video posted on Twitter November 1 shows Trump supporters using their vehicles to blockade the Tappan Zee Bridge near New York City. 

A video posted on Twitter November 1 shows a Trump caravan on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.

These mobilisations of supporters have caused many Americans to question what sort of behavior is appropriate as voters go to the polls. On October 20, a Miami policeman was disciplined for wearing a “Trump 2020” face mask to a polling station while in uniform. Meanwhile, several reports of intimidation from so-called “poll-watchers” have arisen after Trump asked his supporters to “watch very carefully” at the polls. 

According to Hewitt, these actions can affect voters even if they are not directly in the vicinity of polling places. 

 

For voters to see that kind of presence on the way to a polling site, it can certainly be intimidating. It gives you the sense that someone has eyes on you and they are marking who you are. We have heard instances during early voting of people who said that there was someone at the polls who was writing down notes about their every movement, perhaps even taking photographs or videotaping. And that, of course, makes people uncomfortable, that they'll somehow be attacked.

Poll-watchers, and even challengers at the polls, are entirely legal in a lot of different states. The question is, Are they playing within the spirit of the rules? There will always be some that go beyond the rules, and their purpose is to intimidate.

While some voter intimidation tactics are more subtle and indirect, there have been more explicit threats this election cycle. One right-wing militia group known as the Oath Keepers has promised to “protect Trump” at polling stations on Election Day. In Florida, reports of armed Trump supporters near a polling place have also sparked concerns.

 

We certainly heard a call for militia groups to be present and to hold some type of rallies near polling sites. We're seeing all kinds of mayhem out there. Fortunately, it's not indicative of something that is deeply coordinated and widespread to the point where it’ll be successful. But the rhetoric that we hear in the national discourse actually invites these type of people to test their luck to the detriment of voters.

The militia groups have been around for some time, but this year, more than other years, they have themselves some heightened activity with respect to elections. We've seen calls for rallies all throughout the country by certain groups who desire to have a physical and personal presence, which really has no other purpose than to intimidate other people and other voters. They may consider this their last gasp of an opportunity to spread their hate and to have it take some type of effect before Election Day.

According to Hewitt, voter intimidation tactics like these may actually end up having the opposite of their intended effect:

 

We know [in the United States] that voter intimidation and voter disenfranchisement is nothing new. It's been going on for a long time. And for as long as it's been happening, it's been very much gendered and very much racialized for over 100 years. The part of the electorate that is most likely to face intimidation tactics is also the part of the electorate that is perhaps most highly motivated to cast ballots. What we think the effect will be of these intimidation tactics is not to quell the vote, but actually to have a different effect, to actually have an uptick in voter engagement, voter participation and actual ballots cast. That's what we're hoping for.

This article was written by Pariesa Young

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