Many of the concerns about this year’s election focus, rightly, on the voting — the casting and counting of ballots. But officials in Virginia and elsewhere are taking precautions against another threat, that of intimidation at the polls and the potential for violence around the election.
These are not idle worries, and Virginians should take some measure of comfort in knowing steps are being taken to protect voters and keep the peace between now and the presidential inauguration in January.
Last week, at the request of Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, Attorney General Mark Herring issued an advisory opinion to clarify some of the commonwealth’s rules about the election process and the safety of voting sites.
Simon made a request following an incident at an early-voting site in Fairfax on Sept. 19. Supporters of President Donald Trump gathered for a demonstration, which unnerved some voters and local election officials, who opened part of the government building to allow people to stand inside while waiting to cast their ballots.
The demonstrators did nothing illegal. They did not violate the law against electioneering near a polling site, staying about 100 feet from the building, and did not block people from walking up, per reporters on the scene.
But voters have a right to participate in our elections free from intimidation. Casting a ballot should be a cause for celebration, not something to fear.
Herring’s opinion makes clear that such behavior will not be tolerated by supporters of any candidate. It highlights those areas of state law which make it a crime to “hinder, intimidate or interfere” with the conduct of the election or to conspire to keep people from the polls.
It emphasizes the rules about electioneering, which cannot be within 40 feet of a polling place, and the use of a loudspeaker within 300 feet of voting. And, importantly, it underscores Virginia law against “appear[ing] at the polls attempting to exercise roles that rightfully belong to law enforcement” — specifically aimed at "private militias.”
It concludes: “[t]he legitimacy of our government — and its success in fulfilling the promises of our Constitution — rely on the notion of uncoerced choice. Virginia and federal law protect the fundamental right to vote freely.”
The attorney general’s opinion may have come in response to the actions of Trump supporters, but it applies to all. One recalls the outcry in 2008 when two people calling themselves “the New Black Panther Party” were recorded outside a voting site in Philadelphia, which led federal officials to reexamine rules about voter intimidation.
Philadelphia is again at the center of discussion about the conduct of elections after the president this week tweeted, “Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places. There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.”
It was a line of attack he repeated during Tuesday’s presidential debate, one refuted by Philadelphia elections officials, who note that polling places are not yet open. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the president’s campaign has “no poll watchers approved to work” in the city.
That last part is important, and relevant in Virginia as well. Partisan poll observers are allowed in the commonwealth; only registered voters are eligible to serve and they must be certified by one of the political parties or an independent candidate.
Those wishing to participate in this way should contact their local party officials, who are eagerly recruiting observers to help this year. It goes without saying that poll observers cannot campaign for a candidate or show partisan loyalty at polling places, but they can help make sure everything runs smoothly.
It is unfortunate that instead of talking about our national aspirations for the next four years, we must focus instead on keeping the peace and ensuring the exercise of democracy can proceed without threats, intimidation or violence.
But it’s reassuring to see Virginia is taking matters seriously and being proactive to conduct a free and fair election.
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.