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.
Social media and concerted political action have made these voter scams more visible in recent years. Between misleading mailers and fishy phone calls, there’s a lot to look out for—not just to make sure you can vote, but to ensure your private information isn’t stolen in the process.
Here are some of the impediments you may encounter to voting next week—and what to do about them.
There are several ways states can restrict voting, all of which have taken place this election cycle. Voter ID requirements are one way, and have been instituted by at least nine states For example, in Texas a gun permit is an acceptable form of ID, while a student ID is not. Voter ID restrictions disproportionately affect young voters (who may not have state ID or licenses yet), older voters, minorities and Native voters. Before you head to the polls, check here to see what ID is required, and if a poll worker still pushes back, ask to cast a provisional ballot.
Purging voters from the voting rolls is another common tactic that’s been put to use in states including Georgia—led by Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp—as well as New York. 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.
Another strategy used to suppress the vote is cutting the early voting period, which gives people flexibility to vote when they can.“Ohio cut a whole week from early voting, eliminating the ‘golden week’ in which voters could register and vote on the same day,” Vox reports. “And Nebraska cut its early voting period from 35 days to no more than 30 days.” (Emphasis theirs.)
Finally, southern states are closing down polling locations in predominantly minority areas. “In the five years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, nearly a thousand polling places have been shuttered across the country, many of them in southern black communities,” writes Pew, particularly, again, in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams, a black progressive woman, is running for governor. In fact, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution “found 214 polling places (eight percent of the state’s total) have been closed since 2012 in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp is now the Republican candidate for governor,” reports the Daily Beast.
This month, New Yorkers expressed concern when they 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,” writes the New York Daily News, leading to 1,600 calls to the Board of Elections.
He’s not the only pol who has sent misleading mail. The re-election campaign for Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican Congressman from New York, “admitted it mailed out information that gave voters the wrong deadline to return absentee ballots,” reports the Washington Examiner. It then said it mailed out new fliers with the correct information.
Mailing inaccurate or confusing information suppresses voter turnout for a number of reasons: Either because, in the case of Zeldin’s mailers, 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 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 website or another voting nonprofit’s for the correct information.
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 New York, some 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,” warns the AARP. “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 Dallas County, Texas, the county’s nonpartisan election administrator says that voter harassment, such as name-calling and aggressive questions “is 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).
But, according to the ACLU’s Ebenstein, voters shouldn’t be too worried about harassment or intimidation at the polls. “It’s not common,” she says. If you do encounter it, however, you should tell your local elections official or call the ACLU’s election protection hotline at 1-866-Our-Vote.
What’s more likely, as noted above, is that a voter will show up to vote and find they are not on the voter rolls, or that they do not have the proper ID. In that case, contact your local election official for an explanation, and cast a provisional ballot, and before you head to the polls, look up your polling location and check what you’ll need to vote. Arm yourself with information.
But really, says Ebenstein, don’t let your worries get in the way of voting.
“Just tell people to get out there and vote and bring their friends,” she says.