Following significant incidents of voter intimidation in the 2020 election, Virginia is poised to enact a law banning people from carrying guns near polling stations.
The measure would prohibit anyone from knowingly possessing a firearm within 40 feet of a polling location beginning an hour before polls open to an hour after they close. With approval from the House of Delegates last month and the state Senate on Thursday, the bill is now headed to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's desk for his signature.
Heightened activity and heated rhetoric from partisan extremists led to major concerns about armed conflict at the polls during the early voting period and on Election Day last year. As a result, Virginia and other states are considering rules to improve voter safety.
If Northam signs the bill, Virginia would become the seventh state, plus D.C., to explicitly ban guns of all kinds in and around polling places. Four more states ban concealed weapons at the polls. Most of the remaining states have rules banning guns from schools, churches, government offices and other types of buildings that often serve as polling locations. (The bill's opponents argue Virginia already has such a law in place, making the legislation unnecessary.)
The Virginia measure would also prohibit possession of firearms within 40 feet of the building the electoral board uses to determine election results or recount ballots. Exceptions to this rule include qualified or retired law enforcement officers, a person whose private property falls within the 40-feet perimeter or a licensed security officer on duty within the boundary.
Violating this rule would be a misdemeanor, punishable of up to a year in jail, a maximum fine of $2,500 or both.
The bill was approved by the General Assembly along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposing. Only two Democratic House members voted against the bill.
Lori Haas, director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence's Virginia chapter, said this bill would "protect an essential function of our democracy" and "bring us one step closer in ensuring Virginians' freedom from gun violence.
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So far, so relatively good. By the middle of Tuesday afternoon, that was the general sense for how things were going at polling places across the country on this Election Day to end all Election Days.
There were scattered but nothing close to widespread technological glitches and apparent efforts to suppress voting – mainly misleading robocalls in several states that the FBI was investigating – that kept election officials and independent monitors on their toes.
But, with a few hours to go, one of the most divisive and complex tests ever for American electoral democracy seemed to be nearing the end with unexpected calm — and very long lines of people waiting to do their civic duty.
More than 100 million people had voted ahead of Election Day — almost two-thirds of them by mail, with several million more such absentee ballots expected to get delivered on time to be counted.
In D.C., federal Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the Postal Service to conduct a sweep of a dozen Postal Service processing facilities this afternoon to "ensure that no ballots have been held up" in regions that have been slow to process mail ballots. He said any ballots found must get put on trucks and delivered as soon as possible.
Among the facilities targeted by his order are several in battleground states where envelopes arriving after the polls close will not be counted. They handle mail in south Florida, northwestern Wisconsin, Detroit, Atlanta and all of Arizona, Maine and New Hampshire.
And a wave of suspicious robocalls and texts began bombarding telephones in much of the country soon after the polls opened, their unclear origin raising suspicions of last-minute foreign interference. Millions of them urged people to "stay safe and stay home" on Election Day. Another wave of automated calls in Flint, the sixth largest city in battleground Michigan, told people to vote tomorrow if they hoped to avoid long lines today.
That is not possible, of course, leaving officials scrambling to reassure voters of the rules. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan pledged to "work quickly to stamp out misinformation." The FBI was reportedly investigating the larger wave of calls.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the many voting rights groups that has battled all year to make voting easier despite the coronavirus pandemic, detailed the range of complaints to its hotline, part of the largest election monitoring operation in the country. The presidential battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan had produced the most calls.
The group's president, Kristen Clarke, said the biggest concern so far was technical problems with voting systems in two rural counties in tossup Georgia — Spalding south of Atlanta and Morgan east of Atlanta. Voters were being asked to use paper ballots and already those had run out at several locations.
Clarke called this situation a "crisis-level issue" and said her group was considering filing suit to force an extension of voting hours if a negotiated settlement with election officials could not be reached.
Another area of concern was Philadelphia, where two precincts had not opened by midday.
Still, Clarke said it was too early for her to characterize what was happening nationally.
"I think the verdict is still out," she said.
The volume of calls being received at 30 centers organized by her group around the country, mostly law offices, was still relatively high. Concerns about excessively long waiting times at the polls, historically a sign of voter suppression in many parts of the country, were reported at numerous locations around the country in the morning — but those lines eased after the vote-as-soon-as-possible rush ended.
One likely reason for that is the record-setting number of people who voted by mail or in person in advance — leaving perhaps only 50 million ballots to be cast Tuesday, or one-third the total cast four years ago.
Two incidents of voter intimidation were reported in Florida. In one, five pickup trucks were blocking the entrance to a parking lot at a polling place in Orange County, where Orlando is located. In the other, two men who said they were with law enforcement, but were not in uniform, were seated outside a polling place in Tampa and were questioning voters as they entered.
Clarke said in both cases, law enforcement in those communities was alerted.
In Ohio, voting machines malfunctioned at several polling sites in Franklin County, where Columbus is located, forcing people to use paper ballots. Other voters were given provisional ballots, which Clarke said was improper.
North Carolina's Board of Elections was meeting at midafternoon to consider extending voting past 7:30 p.m. at four voting locations in suburban counties near Greensboro, Charlotte and Fayetteville. It's first vote granted one extension for 45 minutes — meaning a delay in reporting results statewide. State law says no returns can be announced until all voting has ended. The extensions were sought because of technical glitches that caused the doors to open late in all four places.
Approximately 50 voters were given an incorrect ballot (it was missing a state House race) when they showed up to vote right when the polls opened at Hickory Ridge Middle School in Harrisburg, outside Charlotte. County officials made arrangements for them to vote for other offices in the morning and come back later to vote for state representative.
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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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Everything about this year's election season has been exceptional, so it comes as no surprise that the plans for monitoring Election Day are without precedent.
On the day before the big day, members of the Election Protection Coalition, which includes many prominent civil rights groups, and the Voter Protection Program, which includes attorneys general from around the country, outlined ambitious and assertive plans to make sure that people who set out to vote in person Tuesday have unfettered access to the polls and help if they encounter problems.
Although an astonishing 97 million votes have already been cast either by mail or in person, a consequence of intensified partisan feelings and the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, that still means 60 million ballots or more are almost certain to be cast for President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden at polling places before all voting in the nation ends Tuesday night.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers Committee for Justice Under the Law (which leads the Election Protection Coalition), said the group's efforts are the most extensive in the 20 years it has existed.
She said the group handled about 120,000 telephone calls seeking help in casting a ballot or confronting suspected voter suppression in all of 2016 — and just in the last month has handled 135,000 such calls. And she said the number of legal volunteers it had enlisted and trained to promote a fair vote Tuesday has crested 42,000 — probably 10 times the number four years ago
So far, Clark said, the biggest volume of calls with concerns were coming from the swing states of Pennsylvania (17,800), Florida (14,900) and Texas (5,100).
Among the issues they expect to deal with Tuesday are the sorts of long lines voters have encountered in early voting states and the failure of absentee ballots that were requested to show up in people's mailboxes.
Karen Hobert Flynn, the president of Common Cause, said the venerable good government and watchdog organization organized about 6,000 volunteers to monitor the polls in 2016 and about 6,500 for the midterm 2018 election. This year's total is seven times that many — about 45,000.
In addition, several thousand volunteers will be monitoring social media for misinformation.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said proof that the disinformation campaigns have worked are polls that find two-thirds of voters worried their ballot will be counted. Despite the fear, she said, "Voter excitement has been something profound."
For those who have a problem voting, the coalition hotline is 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).
On their call, the attorneys general and other officials from the battleground states of Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas condemned any attempts to threaten or intimidate voters on Tuesday. They all expressed confidence that the election process would be safe and secure, but said if any problems did arise, they would be prepared to take swift action.
At the same time, the Justice Department announced it will be sending staff Tuesday to monitor for federal election law violations in 44 jurisdictions in 18 states — ranging from the D.C. suburb of Fairfax County, Va,. to Los Angeles, and from Boston to Houston
The heightened presence of government officials and outside watchdogs comes as the nation seems on edge going into a presidential election in a way not matched in decades. Their apprehension is not only about whether Trump or Biden wins. It's also about profound concern that basic democratic foundations are wavering. Whether their vote counts, whether the loser accept the result and whether the winner will be able to at least partly repair the breach are questions on the minds of millions.
Seven in 10 voters in one of the last pre-election polls, by the Associated Press, say they are anxious about the election and the potential for violence afterward. Biden supporters were more likely than Trump voters to be nervous — by 72 percent to 61 percent.
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