In a call with reporters today, the National Task Force on Election Crises outlined some of the legal work being done to monitor reports of voter intimidation and to head off violence during the election or its aftermath.
Ugly incidents like the one Saturday in Graham, N.C., where police pepper-sprayed Black Lives Matter marchers who were making their way to the polls, remain rare, said Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. When such incidents are discussed, they need to be put in the context of the 97 million votes already cast largely without incident, she said. And the smooth running of elections at nearly 13,000 polling places across the United States. Blowing incidents out of proportion in itself can discourage voting by creating a false impression that it's dangerous to vote in 2020, she said.
"Far more people want a safe election than want to commit violence," Kleifeld said. "Despite a huge spike of protests, despite months of attempts to scare people from voting and despite weeks of early voting, we've had a remarkably peaceful election season up until now. Millions of people have voted without much trouble."
Still, the North Carolina incident was a wake-up call about the need for vigilance and to remember that law enforcement can be used to suppress the vote, said Kristen Clarke president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. Police pepper sprayed a crowd that included the elderly and children, Clarke said. People who had intended to vote at the end of the march couldn't do so because they were detained, she said.
"We think this was a grotesque display of violence used to silence black people who are exercising their First Amendment right to protest and were seeking to use their right to vote," Clarke said. "The images harkened back to the days of Jim Crow. You see sheriff's deputies firing pepper spray at peaceful black demonstrators."
In a news conference yesterday, police blamed the incident on march organizers, who they said didn't work out a safe route for the march and interfered with police efforts to keep roads near the county courthouse open to traffic.
Mary McCord, executive director of Georgetown Law's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the Election Protection coalition has an army of 42,000 legal volunteers, staffing 30 command centers across the country ready to step in as needed. It's staffing the hotline for voters to report problems at the polls (1-866-OUR-VOTE).
"We will be on high alert tomorrow across the country," McCord said. "We're ready to go to court swiftly if we learn about any intimidation incidents. You can't remedy this once the polls shut down."
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