This story has been updated.
Since the polls opened this morning for the first presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, thousands of voters have called hotlines set up by civil and voting rights groups to report problems at the polls, including intimidation in and outside of polling places.
Kristen Clark, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, singled out Florida as a state where voters have made a “substantial number” of complaints regarding voter intimidation.
At a public library in Hollywood, Florida, voters reported leaving the polls without voting due to a group of intimidating individuals outside the polling location during early voting on Sunday evening.
“Apparently aggressive individuals [were] hovering around voters as they approach[ed] the polling site, some have turned away because they feel like they were not able to cast a ballot,” Clarke told reporters this morning.
In Jacksonville, an unauthorized individual affiliated with a party refused requests to leave a polling place in a majority-Black neighborhood this morning, but has since been removed, according to Clarke.
In Ohio, where a federal court recently declared a massive purge of the state’s voter rolls unconstitutional, voters in majority-Black precincts of Cincinnati and Columbus reported that poll workers asked questions about their addresses and urged them to vote provisionally. Members of a Columbus community with a large Somali population said provisional ballots were not available at their polling station, and it’s currently unclear how many voters were affected.
In other parts of the country, including New York City and southern states such as Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia, voters reported growing lines due to malfunctioning voting machines, polling places opening late and confusion stemming from last-minute polling location changes.
The national hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, is run by a coalition of civil rights and racial justice groups and staffed by thousands of legal volunteers with the Election Protection project. States have different rules for establishing buffer zones around polling areas, but Clarke said Election Protection has been successful in working with local poll workers to enforce those rules in several jurisdictions.
Clarke said the main hotline has received more than 80,000 calls so far this season, and more than 5,000 calls this morning.
“A substantial number of calls this morning have come from minority voters — African Americans, Latino, Native American voters — who are all voicing complaints about problems they are experiencing in their communities,” Clarke said.
Tensions running up to this election have been high, and not just because white supremacists and right-wing extremists have promised to monitor the polls as they rally around Donald Trump and his unfounded claims that the election might be stolen by fraudsters.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions in states with histories of racial discrimination to have changes to electoral procedures cleared by federal officials. Since then, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country have rolled out new voting restrictions that civil rights groups claim are aimed at immigrants and people of color, who are more likely to vote Democrat.
“What we are seeing today is really a perfect storm of voter disenfranchisement,” said Wade Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.
Henderson said that 800 polling locations in states previously covered by the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance clause have been recently moved or closed, causing confusion among voters. Voter ID laws and other new restrictions are adding to this “perfect storm.”
Plus, successful legal challenges have recently thrown out some voting restrictions in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Various changes to voting requirements could also cause confusion among poll workers and voters, according to civil rights advocates.
Henderson said the calls coming into the hotline would help advocates build a case for addressing the problems created by the Supreme Court’s decision. After this election, civil rights groups will be calling on leaders in Congress to advance voting rights legislation.
On the bright side, and despite new voter restrictions in states across the country, participation among Latinos in this election could reach historic levels. Arturo Vargas, director of the NALEO Educational Fund, told reporters that a Spanish-language voter hotline has received 110,000 calls from Latino voters this election season, reflecting “unprecedented Latino enthusiasm for a presidential election.”
“Voter protection has become a cause in the Latino community,” Vargas said.
To find out more about Election Protection hotlines in Spanish, Arabic and several Asian languages, click here.
Correction: The Election Protection Coalition originally reported that the apparent incident of voter intimidation at a public library in Hollywood, Florida, occurred on Election Day, but the group later clarified that the incident was reported during early voting on Sunday. The group said the incident has been resolved.