At yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to fill the United States Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent passing, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar asked Judge Barrett about voter intimidation. When asked whether, “under federal law,” it is “illegal to intimidate voters at the polls,” she declined to substantively answer.
In response, Senator Klobuchar pointed out that voter intimidation is, in fact, illegal under federal law. Under 18 U.S.C. § 594, anyone who “intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such a person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate … shall be fined … or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.” So the answer to Senator Klobuchar’s question is yes.
Yet, even a Supreme Court nominee wasn’t willing to answer whether voter intimidation is illegal. So it’s not surprising that voters are concerned about voter intimidation with the start of early voting and election day right around the corner.
North Carolina Law Prohibits Voter Intimidation in Several Ways
In addition to being illegal under federal law, voter intimidation is illegal under North Carolina law as well. Under N.C. Gen. § 163-274(a)(4), it is a misdemeanor “interfere with the holding of any primary or election, to interfere with the possession of any ballot box, election book, ballot … or to interfere in any manner with the performance of any duty imposed by law upon any election officer or member of any board of elections.”
Similarly, N.C. Gen. § 163.275(17) makes it a felony “[f]or any person, directly or indirectly, to misrepresent the law to the public through mass mailing or any other means of communication where the intent and the effect is to intimidate or discourage potential voters from exercising their lawful right to vote.”
Finally, NC law also creates “buffer zones” around voting places to keep voters free from intimidation. Specifically, N.C. Gen. § 163-166.4(a) provides that “[n]o person or group of persons shall hinder access, harass others, distribute campaign literature, place political advertising, solicit votes, or otherwise engage in election-related activity in the voting place or in a buffer zone . . . around the voting place.”
County boards of elections set these buffer zones. But, “where practical,” they’re “50 feet from the door of entrance to the voting place….”
The NC Board of Elections is Taking Steps to Protect Voters, Too
Earlier this month, the North Carolina Board of Elections issued a numbered memo addressing this very topic. The memo included “guidance to election officials in their efforts to ensure all voters enjoy a safe environment that is free from intimidation when they go to the polls….”
The Board recognized the “balance the right of every voter to enter the voting place free from intimidation within … First Amendment protections.” As a result, the memo explains, enforcing buffer zones is extremely important on Nov. 3.
The memo also identifies a variety of conduct that would constitute impermissible voter intimidation under NC law. One example is when “[i]ndividuals outside the buffer zone wear ‘SECURITY’ insignia and inform voters that they are ‘monitoring’ the polling place.”
Another example of prohibited conduct included challenging a voter’s eligibility based on speculation. And the memo specifically emphasizes that voter challenges cannot be made based on ethnicity, religion, language fluency, or national origin.
North Carolina Officials are Ready to Protect Your Right to Vote
Some people may not know whether voter intimidation is illegal or not. But it is. It’s illegal under federal law, and it’s illegal under North Carolina law. And our state’s election officials have made it clear that they’re ready to protect your right to vote in 2020.