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What an expert foresees for voter intimidation this election cycle

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Some people who believe baseless claims about election fraud have encouraged others to do something about it personally, like monitoring ballot drop boxes for suspicious activity.

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KELLY TOWNSEND: I have been so pleased to hear of all you vigilantes out there that want to camp out at these drop boxes. So do it - do it.

SUMMERS: That's Arizona State Senator Kelly Townsend, a Republican, back in May. In Arizona early voting, it's clear people have taken that advice.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At a drop box in the Phoenix suburbs, voters were filmed and followed by a car out of a parking lot. That incident was referred to the U.S. Justice Department. Maricopa County has seen several reports of this kind of activity. On Friday, law enforcement responded to two armed men in tactical gear at a drop box in Mesa.

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PAUL PENZONE: I see that every day. I'm dedicating a considerable amount of resources just to give people confidence that they can cast a vote safely. And that is absurd. It's absurd to think that any individual can't go to a vote box and drop their ballot, that you can't go to a polling site and not be harassed.

SUMMERS: That's Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone. Arizona's current secretary of state said she had referred six complaints of potential voter intimidation to law enforcement.

CHANG: State Senator Kelly Townsend has backed off her May remarks. She tweeted Monday, quote, "to be clear, I never said to intimidate anyone." But GOP nominee for Arizona secretary of state, Mark Finchem, has been pushing election fraud claims since the end of the 2020 election. And he recently tweeted, quote, "watch all drop boxes - period. Save the Republic."

SUMMERS: Reports of these incidents have experts and officials worried about people being discouraged to vote and about what might happen on Election Day. Sean Morales-Doyle is director of the Voting Rights Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He joins us now.

Welcome.

SEAN MORALES-DOYLE: Hi. Great to be here.

SUMMERS: What has been your reaction to the reports of incidents at drop boxes in Arizona?

MORALES-DOYLE: I'm concerned about these reports. I think that they seem to be happening more and more. They seem to be the result of organized, encouraged activity. And obviously, the more recent reports that at least some of these folks have come armed and wearing tactical gear are particularly troubling.

SUMMERS: As I'm listening to you describe these efforts, it makes me wonder how this might compare to what you've seen in past elections.

MORALES-DOYLE: So we have seen voter intimidation in elections in the past. That is not entirely new. And that has included, sometimes, poll watchers engaging in intimidation. But I do think that this sort of drop box monitoring, surveilling people, taking videos, showing up with weapons is different than what we've seen in past elections, both in terms of where it's happening but also in terms of the organization and the volume that - sometimes it's, you know, a lone bad actor, you know, showing up and acting inappropriately at a polling place. But the fact that there seem to be groups who are recruiting large numbers of people to engage in this and that it's happening in a bunch of different places and that it's driven by sort of very widespread lies about our elections, that makes it new and different.

But I also do want to say very clearly that I think the vast majority of Americans that go to the polls in this election this fall are going to have a normal experience. They're not going to face any kind of intimidating behavior, and everything is going to be just fine. I don't want these incidences - I don't want anyone to think that they are so widespread that they have a reason to be worried about going to vote. So I want voters to feel safe. And so I don't want to overstate the threat here, but there is a reason to be worried about this happening all the way up to and including Election Day.

SUMMERS: I'd like to talk a little bit about the legality of all of this. As you mentioned, voter intimidation is not new. It's illegal, right?

MORALES-DOYLE: Absolutely. Voter intimidation is illegal. It is a crime under federal law. It is a crime under state law in Arizona and, you know, most other parts of the country, if not all. It is something that can be challenged in court through civil lawsuits. It isn't new, and neither are the laws against it. You know, these laws date back to 1871, when Congress, during the Reconstruction Era, passed laws to try to limit groups like the Ku Klux Klan from intimidating voters.

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you, what do you see as the possible consequences of these efforts at sowing distrust in the middle of an election season?

MORALES-DOYLE: I mean, the most immediate consequence is that it might intimidate people away from voting. And that's really worrisome. I'm sure there will be people who are intimidated by this behavior. I hope that it doesn't stop anyone from voting. But I'm very worried that it might. I'm also worried about the long-term impact on our elections. Elections are something that we should celebrate. We should celebrate the fact that we have a democracy and that it works, even when it is facing unprecedented circumstances.

If people see elections as a scary thing, where people are, you know, standing, waiting for them with guns, then we're in a really worrisome place. I really worry that this intimidation that we're witnessing is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is that a huge percentage of this country has been, you know, convinced not to believe in our democracy. And that's really something to worry about in the long term.

SUMMERS: Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice. Thank you so much.

MORALES-DOYLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mia Venkat
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.