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How state leaders are protecting voters from intimidation at the polls

Posted at 6:01 PM, Oct 21, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. -- Nearly $1 million Virginians have already voted early, in-person for the 2020 election, but following reports of voter intimidation in Northern Virginia, state leaders said Virginia law explicitly outlaws inferring or intimidating voters as they head to the polls, which includes early, in-person voting.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) sent a letter to Virginia law enforcement groups asking for continued support to “ensure a safe, smooth, fair, and accurate election, and a positive experience for voters at their polling place.”

Herring referenced a September opinion from his office that cited both Virginia code and federal laws that rise to the level of a felony if a person is convicted of interfering with a citizen’s right to vote.

Virginia election law reads as follows:

“It shall be unlawful for any person to hinder, intimidate, or interfere with any qualified voter so as to prevent the voter from casting a secret ballot. The officers of election may order a person violating this subsection to cease such action. If such person does not promptly desist, the officers of election, or a majority of them, may order the arrest of such person by any person authorized by law to make arrests, and, by their warrant, may commit him to the county or city jail, as the case may be, for a period not exceeding twenty-four hours. Any person violating this subsection shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

In Virginia, Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Electioneering, the practice of distributing campaign information for a particular candidate or issue, is permitted in Virginia. However, the person cannot come within 40 feet of the front entrance of a polling place or registrar's office.

Christopher Piper, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, urged voters who experienced treatment they view as intimidation to report the incident to local election officials immediately.

“We encourage them to report that to election officers inside the polling place or to contact your local voter registration office and let them handle it,” Piper said. “In my experience, once this action is reported, it’s usually resolved very quickly with the election officers getting involved.”

In 2019, the Virginia Department of Elections reported only five complaints of voter intimidation. The largest number of complaints were 58 in 2016, which of course was the last presidential election.

During the first presidential debate, President Trump’s call for his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” raised fears about potential polling place confrontations.