Jeering sign-wavers, caravans of honking trucks flying Trump 2020 flags, and charged political rhetoric — delivered via bullhorn at people waiting in line at polling sites — have become the increasingly common backdrop to early voting across the country, particularly in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
“I do think activities like that can be intimidating, and especially an activity where we have seen violence associated with Trump caravans,” said Lindsay Schubiner, the program director at the Western States Center, a progressive nonprofit focused on far-right extremism. The center is based in Portland, Ore., where a Trump supporter was killed on a public street in August when a self-described antifa adherent shot him after a Trump caravan spilled into a crowd of racial justice protesters.
The potential for such violence and claims of voter intimidation led sheriff’s departments in Laredo, Tex., and Pinellas County, Fla., last week to station deputies outside early-voting stations. In Laredo, the move came after a group of Trump supporters was accused of surrounding and harassing Democratic Party volunteers in a parking lot near a voting precinct. In Pinellas County, the move followed public outcry after two armed security guards showed up to a St. Petersburg voting station and claimed to be working for the Trump campaign — an incident the Republican sheriff ultimately dubbed a “nonevent.”
Some alleged intimidation incidents have prompted local investigations, including reports of voters inappropriately turned away from an early-voting precinct in Tennessee for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. There also have been reports of law enforcement officers in Miami and Brooklyn displaying or vocalizing their support for Trump outside the polls.
The Washington Post contacted local police departments and election board officials based on tips that ProPublica’s Electionland project reviewed and shared with partner news organizations.
In conservative Shelbyville, Tenn., two people told a local news outlet this month that they found threatening messages from the KKK at their homes, which they believed to be in response to their Biden/Harris yard signs.
While some of the vocal activity outside voting precincts might trot right up to the line of illegal intimidation, most of it isn’t actually violating the law, law enforcement officials and experts say.
“There’s been people who have done little street-corner rallies and people have said some unkind things,” said Cpl. Chuck Skipper, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department. “But there’s been no arrests. Nothing criminal.”
Promoting a candidate, party or policy, so long as it is outside of the 100- to 150-foot electioneering buffer zone mandated by most states, is allowed. That includes music and angry speeches or taunts and jeers blasted through speaker systems. It includes the man filmed in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., this week driving circles around a voting station while repeatedly asking, “Where’s Hunter?” through a bullhorn. It generally includes the maskless masses irritating some voters waiting in Palm Beach County, Fla. And it often includes the rallies where people show up with guns, too.
A 67-year-old Democratic voter in rural, red Tuscarawas County, Ohio, said he was irked by a recent Trump rally outside the county’s sole early-voting station over the weekend in large part because of a self-proclaimed militia’s presence.
“When I was driving there, I was three blocks away and heard the loudspeaker system,” said the man, a retiree who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment from his neighbors. The display was noisy, but it amounted to an expression of First Amendment rights, in his view. “I’m all for that. The thing that got me more was the members of the ‘Ohio militia’ in military garb with firearms. That’s intimidating enough.”
Sheriff Orvis Campbell told local media that there was shouting back and forth between supporters of both Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, but nothing that rose to the level of voter intimidation.
“It makes people nervous to see guns like that out on the square, but it is legal,” Campbell told the Times-Reporter. “We didn’t have any problem. I spoke to both sides and they were both respectful.”
Monica Fell, the event’s organizer, wrote on Facebook after the event that “there was NO voter intimidation. . . . It’s amazing how quick people can make up laws in their head and actually believe their own lies.”
There have been a few Biden caravans in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and there have been some equally loud Democrats with their own bullhorns outside polling stations.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, Biden’s running mate, on Oct. 24 tweeted a video of herself outside an Ohio polling station, telling voters through a microphone: “You are going to make the decision about your future, about your family’s future. It is through the voice of your vote.”
Many of the intimidation complaints have centered on issues of what one voting rights attorney called “logistics.” Such allegations include that one side is blocking the sidewalk or the polling station’s entrance; shouting at people in the parking lot; being too aggressive with their messaging; and generally just standing in the way.
“Absolutely, it’s intimidating,” George Cimballa, a voter in Lantana, Fla., told a local news station as he waited to vote Monday, as a maskless Trump supporter nearby called him a “hypocrite.”
Generally, such situations have been managed effectively so far, said Sarah Brannon, the managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. And it’s often unclear whether the instigators in such incidents actually intend to stop people from voting, or just want to advocate their position and inevitably wind up in a disruptive position “because they’re standing in the flow of traffic,” Brannon said.
There is no legal recourse against people expressing their views — however noisily — if they are positioned far enough outside of a polling station, Brannon said.
“If they are outside the electioneering line, and as long as they’re not obstructing traffic . . . there is probably not a legality issue with that kind of behavior,” she said.
Experts say the kind of voter intimidation that concerns them more comes in the form of disinformation, such as the robocalls in Michigan that falsely warned voters that their mail-in ballots would make their personal information vulnerable to debt collectors, or the guidance from the president, who has warned of vote-rigging by the Democrats.
A new Trump campaign ad features the song “YMCA,” as Trump appears to toss cartoon Trump hats at people — including a protester — knocking them to the ground.
“For voting night, the thing that concerns me most is the president’s own call to his people to watch the polls,” said Adele Stan, who runs Right Wing Watch for People for the American Way, a Democratic activist group and PAC. Actual poll watchers must be officially registered in their jurisdiction, Stan said, and that means that unofficial vigilantes will be turned away.
The proclaimed willingness of self-styled militias and other armed right-wing groups to “protect” the polls has alarmed those who track extremist groups. Some view the armed militants’ participation in counter-rallies during this past summer of racial reckoning — and as self-proclaimed “security” for Confederate monuments — as practice runs.
But there has been “no coherent campaign by any of these groups to organize around poll-watching,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“Extremists of all kinds always talk about what they’re going to do, and what they actually do doesn’t always match up,” he said.
Enrique Tarrio, who heads the loosely organized Proud Boys, an all-male group that backs Trump and has been known to fight with left-wing protesters, said he expects the Democrats to go out into the streets and start “mayhem” if Trump wins.
But as for his group, Tarrio said: “We’re trying to stay away from any polling stations, period.”
Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP who is now president of People for the American Way, said he worries about the potential for violence. For now, he thinks the Trump caravans and poll rallies might just spur more Democrats to vote.
“It’s very easy to forget that the bicycle in your front yard has value until somebody tries to steal it,” he said. “It’s been my experience in 2012, and it’s my hope in 2020.”