Balloting got underway in Georgia this week with predictably long lines and malfunctioning voting machines. That’s inexcusable, but sadly, entirely unsurprising. Georgia has come to be seen as ground zero for voter suppression in the United States.
The watchers must be identifiable. They should be wearing badges and they should not interact with the public. No poll watcher can interfere with your right to vote.
And there’s another problem looming: intimidation at the ballot box. President Donald Trump encouraged his “poll watchers” to turn out at voting precincts on Election Day. At the first presidential debate last month, he urged the far-right extremist group Proud Boys to “stand by” ahead of the Nov. 3 vote.
I’m a long-time voting rights activist. Here’s my advice to you: Ignore the president. Ignore his “poll watchers” if you see them at voting locations. They can’t interfere with your right to vote.
When I started working with voting rights in 2000, there weren't as many barriers to voting as there are today, such as having a photo ID. In the past two decades, I've witnessed polling location changes and consolidations, attempts to put polling locations in police precincts and other barriers that make it much harder to vote.
The tiniest discrepancies are sometimes used to hinder a person's right to cast a ballot. Signatures for voter registration have to match those on SocialSecurity and driver’s license databases — and everyone knows about inaccuracies with those databases.
We saw this play out in the 2018 governor's race in Georgia — betweenStacey Abrams, the former minority leader in the state General Assembly, and BrianKemp, who won the race and is now governor — when the processing of 53,000 registration applications was held up.
Into this climate enter Trump’s poll watchers. If you’re voting in person, here’s what you need to keep in mind when it comes to these people, who are admitted into polling locations “for the purpose of observing the conduct of the election and the counting and recording of votes”: In Georgia, only parties and political candidates can have poll watchers. The watchers must be identifiable. They should be wearing badges and they should not interact with the public. No poll watcher can interfere with your right to vote.
According to Georgia law, a “poll watcher shall in no way interfere with the conduct of the election.” Specifically, they are “prohibited from talking to voters, checking electors lists, using photographic or other electronic monitoring or recording devices, using cellular telephones, or participating in any form of campaigning while they are behind the enclosed space.”
If you are mistreated by a poll worker, you should call it to the attention of the on-site poll manager or the election supervisor at the Board of Elections office, or file a claim with the state’s secretary of state. And if someone purporting to be a poll watcher becomes intimidating, you should not hesitate to call the police.
In addition to the voter suppression tactics that have become far too common in Georgia, the coronavirus presents additional challenges to casting a ballot.
The United States has hit more than 215,000 Covid-19 deaths, and we’ll likely see a second wave of the virus in the coming weeks. That’s why I think Georgia residents — particularly Black and brown people who are at greater risk from Covid-19, and are more likely to face voter suppression efforts — would be well-advised to consider casting an absentee ballot this year.
Voting by mail — despite the president’s frequent assertions to the contrary — is reliable. In fact, your mailed-in ballot has safeguards from manipulation that electronic voting machines don’t have, because they are paper and voters mark them themselves. And importantly, voting by mail can reduce the risk of spreading the virus among those hit hardest by the pandemic.
Every Georgian planning to vote by mail should make sure to mail their ballot as soon as possible, or promptly drop it off at a ballot drop box. Today would not be too soon. They can follow this link to find the nearest ballot drop box.
Former first lady Michelle Obama reminded us to be prepared to do whatever it takes to exercise our voting rights. “We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast, too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to,” she said at the Democratic National Convention.
Georgians seem to be doing just that, some waiting in line for a half a day to exercise their voting rights. They seem to fully understand what’s at stake this election. This isn't about politics. It's about protecting our ability to participate in our democracy during unprecedented times.