Almost 47 years to the day after a peaceful voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, ended in violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a federal court in Philadelphia struck a major blow against modern day voter intimidation tactics.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a long-standing consent decree prohibiting the Republican National Committee (RNC) from engaging in underhanded campaign practices aimed at depressing voter turnout in communities of color. The consent decree, which arose out of a 1981 voting rights lawsuit against the RNC, bars the organization from using voter challengers, poll watchers, and vote caging plans to target and intimidate voters of color. It specifically precludes the RNC’s poll watchers from overstepping their role as election observers and prohibits them from asking voters for identification, filming or recording voters, and distributing literature about voter fraud penalties. After a federal district court denied the RNC’s request to dissolve the consent decree in 2009, the RNC appealed to the Third Circuit.
In unanimously rejecting the RNC’s appeal, the Third Circuit highlighted the continuing threat that voter intimidation poses to our election system. The court’s opinion described how poll watchers and poll challengers have the potential to disenfranchise lawful voters by causing delays, crowding, and confusion inside the polling place and creating a charged partisan atmosphere that can intimidate many new voters. The Brennan Center has highlighted these problems in the past and applauds the court for upholding this important safeguard against voter suppression.
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The court’s decision represents a significant victory for voters but also serves as a critical reminder about the need to protect against the kinds of pernicious voter intimidation tactics that the court discussed in its opinion. With the 2012 election fast approaching, it is important that state officials take steps to ensure that other political groups—not just the RNC—follow the law and refrain from using poll watchers to intimidate or discriminate against voters. In 2010, reports surfaced about political campaigns and other private organizations attempting to engage in the kinds of activities that the Third Circuit described. The Department of Justice investigated the poll-watching efforts of one such organization in Harris County, Texas, after fielding complaints that the group’s members were interfering with the voting process in predominantly black and Latino voting precincts. As these organizations ramp up their efforts to recruit poll watchers for the upcoming presidential election, election officials must be prepared to enforce the law and protect voters.