Concerns about voter suppression as election approaches

Cones and people line up in a parking lot outside of a building.
Voters queue up to cast ballots at a Ramsey County early voting center in St. Paul on Monday. Staff at the site estimated the wait time on Monday afternoon at up to two hours.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated: 6:52 p.m.

Officials in Minnesota and across the country are preparing for threats against the integrity of Tuesday’s election, ranging from the spread of false information to voter intimidation. In an election that’s already complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a contentious presidential race, state officials are expressing confidence that the state’s election system is up to the task. 

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Monday that they’d be sending federal election monitors to 44 jurisdictions around the country, including the city of Minneapolis. The agency said in a statement that the effort was to preserve the rights of all voters. 

“Our federal laws protect the right of all American citizens to vote without suffering discrimination, intimidation, and harassment,” said Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division. 

But late Monday morning, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he wasn’t notified about the U.S. Department of Justice’s plans. Simon said that state law would prohibit law enforcement agents, including the monitors, from entering a polling place unless they’re invited by local authorities. 

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“Absent any independent federal authority that I’m not yet aware of, I don’t understand how federal observers from the Department of Justice will be afforded automatic access to polling places in Minneapolis or anywhere else,” Simon said. 

A spokesperson for the city of Minneapolis said Monday afternoon that local officials have been told that there will be 14 federal monitors in town, but that they’ll be located 100 feet away from polling places in accordance with state law. 

The U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement comes as President Donald Trump continues to question the accuracy and integrity of the country’s electoral systems, including calling on followers to observe voting at polling stations. The president does have a large mouthpiece, as well as influence over federal agencies, said Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

“It also puts the press and nonpartisan civil society in a potentially tricky situation of not wanting to seem like they're criticizing one of the parties’ nominees for president,” said Vandewalker. “But it's undeniable that the president has been spreading lies about voting processes.”

What’s disinformation?

In an electoral context, disinformation is often used by political partisans to suppress the vote of people they think will oppose their candidate, Vandewalker said.

“Social media has been a big target of people spreading disinformation. But we've also seen texts straight to people's phones, robo-calls, as well as old-school signs on telephone poles,” he said. 

Lewis Anderson, a Roseville resident, told MPR News he received a recorded phone call to his cell phone warning him to “stay safe and stay home.” He said the call came from a 612 number, and the voice sounded computerized.

But a common disinformation tactic is to give voters false information about where or when they can vote. 

Political disinformation has a long history in the United States, and traditionally has targeted people of color, immigrants or young voters. Vandewalker said partisans trying to suppress the vote usually rely on just a couple of tools. 

“One is false information designed to make it actually impossible for the person to vote if they believe it,” Vandewalker said. “But others are things about just casting doubt on the process, casting doubt on the results ahead of time — casting doubt on democracy itself.” 

How to avoid spreading disinformation? 

Election officials are one of the best sources for legitimate information, Vandewalker said. And social media companies do have a role in limiting false information. But it’s often on voters to exercise caution about the sort of information they’re sharing, and to make sure it’s coming from legitimate sources.   

“If you ever see something that seems outrageous or too good to be true, or fits in with your partisan view of the world, it's good to pause, take a moment, think about why somebody's saying it,” he said.  And do “a web search for other reliable sources to see if it's a hoax or not.” 

Concerns about voter suppression 

By making voters wary about polling places or the electoral process, people engaged in disinformation want to drive down the number of votes cast by people they see as opponents, Vandewalker said.  

At the urging of a Trump campaign official, the Minneapolis police union sent out an email last week looking to recruit retired police officers to act as “poll challengers” in “problem” areas in Minneapolis, according to the Star Tribune. Attorney General Keith Ellison late last month also told a Tennessee company to cease and desist after the company said it was recruiting armed guards to be stationed at Minnesota polling sites, which Ellison said would violate state election laws against voter intimidation.

The law allowing poll challengers in Minnesota doesn’t give them leeway to interfere or even interact with voters. The challengers are endorsed by major political parties and can only object to a voter casting their ballot if they have personal information that the voter isn’t eligible. Political parties can appoint only one challenger per precinct.

A spokesperson for Trump’s campaign said Monday “poll watchers are critical to ensuring the fairness of any election,” and accused Democrats of not being trustworthy. She said the campaign had recruited 50,000 volunteer poll watchers. 

While there have been some high-profile examples of partisan intimidation across the country in recent days, Vandewalker said it’s the threat of intimidation that suppresses voters.  

“An intimidating presence is one tool, but rumors are their biggest tool, right? Because then people are afraid of going to places even when the intimidators aren't showing up,” he said. “It's important to put in context that these are a few isolated incidents, and that voters should feel safe going to the polls where they live.”

Simon, Minnesota’s secretary of state, said it’s important to remember that Minnesota has a long history of peaceful and fair elections. Simon said he’s confident that the state’s election system will meet the challenge this week. 

“I remain an optimist. Minnesota’s number one in voter turnout for a reason,” he said. “We will always find a way to vote in Minnesota ... even in a once-in-a-century pandemic.”