Voting is a precious right, embraced in a constitutional democracy such as that in the United States. In fact, voting is so fundamental a right that it's referenced five separate times throughout the Constitution, including four separate amendments relating to abrogating barriers to voting such as age, race, or sex. While many take the right to vote for granted, the right to vote has consistently been viewed as one that must be fiercely protected by our government.
The debate rages on as to whether the Constitution explicitly provides for a right to vote or merely hints at the idea. This debate is further complicated by the patchwork of state laws and voting procedures. But one thing is clear: there are laws on the books which protect against voter intimidation.
Below you'll find key information on the federal laws protecting against such behavior and where to go if you're charged with a crime against the government or any other federal crime. Keep in mind, if you or someone you know has experienced interference or attempts to interfere with the right to vote, that may be a violation of federal law and you may want to speak with an attorney.
Voter Intimidation Basics
The federal law against voter intimidation can be found at 18 U.S.C. § 594. One commits this crime by deterring or influencing voting activity through threats to deprive voters of something they already have, such as jobs, government benefits, or, in extreme cases, their personal safety. While states often have laws against voter intimidation of their own, this article focuses solely on the federal crime.
The law states:
Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such other person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, at any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing such candidate [has committed voter intimidation].
Anyone who interferes or conspires to interfere with a person’s right to vote can face a felony charge with up to one year in prison and a hefty fine, or both.
How Does Voter Intimidation Happen?
Over the years there have been a number of ways individuals have attempted to intimidate voters in different areas of the country. Common ways include lying or spreading false information about voter requirements, such as:
- Ability to speak English;
- Requirement to present certain types of photo identification in states which do not require such verification;
- Criminal record; and
- Other qualifications to vote.
All of this is done with the purpose of intimidating or discouraging a person from voting with no basis in law or fact.
Voter Intimidation Allegations in Recent Years
While the 2016 presidential election saw allegations of intimidation up to Election Day, there have been other controversial instances. Specifically in 2008, a case of voter intimidation surfaced in a Philadelphia neighborhood when two New Black Panther Party members stood outside a polling place dressed in black paramilitary uniforms, one alleged to be holding a weapon described as a “nightstick.” After looking into the incident, the U.S. Justice Department eventually dismissed the case.
Voter Intimidation: Additional Resources
- State-by-State Time Off to Vote Laws
- Federal Voter ID Requirements: The Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
- What to Do When You are Faced with Voter Intimidation (ACLU)
Charged with Voter Intimidation? Speak with an Attorney
Voting rights have been a highly charged topic throughout U.S. history, and allegations of voter intimidation are extremely serious and can lead to prison time. If you or someone you know is being accused of voter intimidation, you’ll want to have an experienced criminal defense attorney advocating on your behalf.