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    The Most Common Voter Suppression Scams, and How to Get Around Them

    Voter suppression tactics are as old as the United States itself. Limited enfranchisement, poll taxes, gerrymandering and, more recently, voter ID restrictions and targeted polling site closures have all been used throughout our country’s history to deny the vote to targeted populations.

    But even though these strategies to keep people away from the polls aren’t new, they’re a particular concern this year. Not only did Republicans rely on voter suppression in 2016, but also, in an unprecedented move, the president called on his supporters to go “to the polls and watch very carefully” at the first presidential debate on Tuesday—essentially encouraging voter intimidation.

    That’s not to suggest voters should be deterred by worries about what they’ll encounter on election day—quite the contrary. “People should exercise their fundamental right to vote, they shouldn’t be intimidated either by the laws they’ve read about or by anyone or anything they encounter on the way to the polls,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project tells Lifehacker. But you should know what’s being done to make voting harder and how to rectify it.

    Here are some of the impediments you may encounter to voting on November 3rd—and what to do about them.

    Voting restrictions

    There are several ways states can restrict voting, all of which are possibilities in the upcoming election. Voter ID requirements are one way, and at this point, 35 states request or require some type of voter identification. The requirements vary by state—and may have changed since you voted last—so make sure you look yours up before you head out to vote.

    Purging voters

    Purging voters from the voting rolls is another common tactic that’s been put to use in states including Wisconsin, where the state’s Supreme Court is currently weighing the removal of 130,000 voters from the state’s registry. If you go to vote and find you’ve been purged, you can call the ACLU’s election protection hotline (1-866-Our-Vote) and/or your local elections official, and then ask for a provisional ballot. Make sure you do that before getting frustrated and leaving.

    Limiting the early voting period

    Another strategy that has been used to suppress the vote is cutting the early voting period, which gives people flexibility to vote when they can. This has already happened in Wisconsin for the upcoming election, while Texas Republicans are suing the state’s Republican governor to stop him from extending the early voting period.

    Closing polling locations

    Finally, southern states are closing down polling locations in predominantly minority areas. In fact, a 2019 report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that nearly 1,200 polling places in the south have been shuttered since the Supreme Court weakened a landmark voting-discrimination law in 2013. This year, the process has continued in Texas, Kentucky and Maryland.

    Misleading mailers

    Prior to the 2018 midterm election, New Yorkers received mailers that seemed to indicate they had been purged from the voting rolls. The mailers, sent by Mayor Bill de Blasio, were reportedly “so confusing and inaccurate that many voters thought they had been scammed by someone looking to suppress turnout in the midterm elections,” wrote the New York Daily News, leading to 1,600 calls to the Board of Elections.

    This is also a concern in 2020. On September 12, a top Colorado election official filed a lawsuit against the postmaster general and other USPS leaders, “claiming that a mailer sent to voters in the state was an attempt to disenfranchise them by offering misleading information about how to vote by mail,” the New York Times reported. Six days later, the USPS agreed to destroy any mailers with misleading information about Colorado mail voting that had not already been sent out.

    Mailing inaccurate or confusing information suppresses voter turnout for a number of reasons: Either because voters don’t know the correct deadlines, or because they might falsely believe they’re no longer registered to vote. Mailers often have important information on them, so you don’t want to ignore them—but double check deadlines and your polling location before you go to vote.

    Misinformation on social media

    Mailers are one component of misinformation campaigns; social media is a bigger, more insidious threat. One example of why, as reported in 2018 by Illinois’s Fox affiliate: In 2016, the Illinois board of elections warned that “the FBI detected text messages and social media campaigns that claimed to offer users the opportunity to vote electronically or promoted incorrect information about voting.”

    Posts like this, which promoted false information, circulated during the 2016 election:

    You cannot vote online anywhere in the U.S.—you must vote in person or via absentee ballot. Here’s how to find your polling site. Again, social media can be a great place to find relevant information, which is also what makes it the ideal place to spread misinformation. Make sure you look for proper sourcing on claims—particularly ones that claim “no one knows” about them—and check the ACLU’s voting rights website or another voting nonprofit’s for the correct information.

    Federal election crimes

    Last week, the FBI issued a warning to voters about a variety of election-related crimes that could take place between now and November 3rd. “Every year, Americans pick their leaders and make their voices heard through elections,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director for the Criminal Investigative Division said in a statement. “Those elections must remain free and fair to ensure voters’ voices are truly heard. As Americans get ready to vote, the FBI is asking each citizen to remain vigilant and report any suspected criminal scheme targeting voters to the FBI immediately.”

    While it’s up to individual states and localities to responsibility to manage their own elections, an election crime becomes a federal crime when one or more of the following occurs:

    • A ballot includes one or more federal candidates
    • Election or polling place officials abuse their office
    • The conduct involves false voter registration
    • The crime is motivated by hostility toward minority protected classes
    • The activity violates federal campaign finance law

    According to the FBI, examples of federal election crimes include, but are not limited to:

    • Giving false information when registering to vote
    • Voting more than once
    • Changing ballot markings or otherwise tampering with ballots
    • Compensating voters
    • Threatening voters with physical or financial harm
    • Intentionally lying about the time, manner, or place of an election to prevent qualified voters from voting
    • Political fundraising by federal employees
    • Campaign contributions above legal limits
    • Conduit contributions
    • Contributions from foreign or other prohibited sources
    • Use of campaign funds for personal or unauthorized purposes

    If you see or experience any of the above, report any instances of potential election crimes to your local FBI field office as soon as possible.

    Identity theft

    It’s not just political actors that voters need to watch out for; identity thieves also take advantage of America’s confusing and laborious registration process. For example, in 2018, some New York residents reported a call asking for personal information over the phone under the guise of voter registration. But you cannot register to vote or vote over the phone or via text in the U.S.

    The Federal Trade Commission warned against these scams back in 2008: “Scammers may send messages asking for your Social Security number or financial information supposedly to register you to vote—or to confirm your registration—when they really want to commit identity theft.”

    Additionally, “con artists pose as political volunteers in an attempt to lure voters into donating money by asking for cash or a credit card number,” the AARP has warned. “Experts say these communications should be considered suspicious, and they urge consumers not to answer numbers they do not recognize.” The AARP notes that “the Deep South, Washington, D.C., and states such as Michigan and Texas” are especially common targets because voters are more passionate. Legitimate volunteers may call you, but it’s unlikely that they’ll kick off the call asking for money. If you do pick up the phone and a person asks for donations or other personal information, hang up. Even if the call is legitimate, it’s better to go to the campaign’s website and donate than to hand out your information over the phone.

    Threats and intimidation

    In 2018, the nonpartisan election administrator from Dallas County, Texas said that voter harassment, such as name-calling and aggressive questions was “the worst she’s seen in decades,” according to ProPublica:

    At the Lakeside Activity Center in Mesquite, Texas, election administrators received complaints of a partisan poll watcher looking over voter’s shoulders as they cast their ballots and questioning voters on their politics. The person was later escorted out by Mesquite Police Department officers on Monday after refusing to leave the premises.

    These types of tactics could make voters nervous. “If you are a first time voter—say, a young voter or a minority voter, a newly enfranchised Hispanic citizen voting for the first time—and you have some aggressive white guy yelling at you as you walk in, it might have a negative effect,” Calvin Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, told ProPublica. “It’s meant to dissuade people from voting.”

    Also note that most states ban political messaging within 100 feet of a polling station, and campaigning of any kind (including wearing a candidate’s campaign T-shirt or button, for example). And yes, this includes the president’s requested poll watchers, who are strictly prohibited from interfering with the electoral process, or directly approaching voters. If this is something you encounter while voting, tell your local elections official or call the ACLU’s election protection hotline at 1-866-Our-Vote.

    If you are turned away from the polls because you are not on the voter rolls, or don’t have the proper ID, contact your local election official for an explanation, and cast a provisional ballot. And before you even head to the polls, look up your polling location and check what you’ll need to vote. Arm yourself with information, and in the event that you are turned away, know your rights.

    This post was originally published in 2018 and updated October 1, 2020 to include new information on voter suppression tactics, as well as information on how to report it.

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