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Tea Party practices its voter intimidation skills for November in Massachusetts

Massachusetts held a Democratic primary recently; you might have missed it, in a haze of other election news and everything else that’s going on. But something really, really important happened there, and it wasn’t just who won the election. It’s something that didn’t get nearly as much coverage as it should have, even in progressive media, where there are growing concerns about what, exactly, is going to happen when we hit the polls in November.

Tea Party members turned out in Worcester, MA to intimidate voters with a variety of tactics including filming them, challenging their credentials, making false claims in fliers, and criticising Spanish speakers. Their reasons for organising the campaign were extremely transparent, and also lay the blueprints for more to come; they were responding to a massive voter registration campaign that had the audacity to attempt to get more low-income people and historically disenfranchised populations on the rolls.

At the same time, Tea Party members are organising a poll watching campaign they’re calling ‘True the Vote‘ in November. This nakedly partisan organisation aims to augment traditional voter suppression tactics like distributing false information about elections and the polls with policing polling stations, an activity allowed in 39 states. Groups like this one are actively lobbying for restrictions on voting rights, like the voting ID laws creeping across the nation, and they’re also hitting the ground with campaigns like Code Red, specifically and obviously targeting minority populations.

This is serious business. Every US election comes with irregularities, and some of them are truly chilling in nature, from boxes of ballots never delivered, to malfunctioning voting equipment, to polling stations closing early or giving out incorrect information to voters. And that’s just the institutional irregulations; on top of that you have fliers, phone calls, announcements, and sidewalk chalk designed to intimidate and confuse voters, challenges at the polls from civilians, and more. All this, as groups like Code Red put it, ‘to help [ensure] that Conservatives win.’

With language like ‘battle plan,’ it’s pretty clear that these organisations aren’t interested in election integrity, fair representation, and full voting rights for everyone. They are interested in one thing and one thing only, and that is suppressing voting by undesirable groups, like anyone who’s going to vote against the conservative ticket. And the right is focusing its efforts on people easily identified as ‘other’ and potentially likely to vote progressive, like residents of low-income neighbourhoods and people of colour.

Voting rights are being assailed on all sides in the United States, and I am deeply disturbed by the rise of organisations like this, which nakedly aim to deprive their fellow citizens of their often hard-won right to vote. I’m glad to see progressives pushing back on this, defending the right to vote, and pledging to do some poll-watching of their own in November, but I’m also afraid of where this is going to lead, because we seem to be tracking down an escalating path of attack, retaliation, and defense.

Are we going to see violence at the polls this November? How far are people willing to go to keep those they don’t like from voting, and how much is the left willing to tolerate? The US is fond of looking at images of rioting and protests in the wake of stolen elections in other regions of the world, but how will we feel when this is happening to us, when it’s our voters reporting rampant intimidation and talking on international news about how they weren’t permitted to vote because of violent and aggressive actions on the part of their fellow citizens?

I’ve been voting absentee for years, not least because it offers me a very useful paper trail; I (and you!) can check with the Elections Clerk to determine if my ballot was received and properly registered (just keep your ballot stub and check their website or office for more info, the process is usually very easy). And I’m fortunate to live in an area where right-wing intimidation at the polls would be soundly rebuffed. But I fear for many people going to the polls this year, for the threats they may face for exercising one of the core rights and values of this country; the United States is a deeply angry, troubled, unhappy place, and it is far from a perfect one, but voting is one of the ways we can collectively work to make it better.

The thought of having our elections dominated by conservatives who view elections as more like a military operation than a political process, who will stop at nothing to ensure victory for their side, is deeply chilling to me, and achingly familiar. A legacy of brutal politics around the world has begun with campaigns just like this, with extremist conservative groups pledging to ‘protect the integrity of elections’ and ‘save society.’

Preparations are already being made to fight voter intimidation and to file the inevitable lawsuits that will result from irregularities at the polls; the left is preparing for the abuses of the right in the best ways it knows how. And right now, that’s the most critical thing. To get through this election, to make sure it is free and fair, to ensure that everyone is able to vote. But we need to be thinking about the future, too, and how we come to this state, how to strike back against it, how to turn it upside-down and cut off the voter intimidation trend at its roots.

Right now it feels more like pruning a redwood tree.

Note: I turned comments off on this piece because we were being inundated in spam for some reason. I apologise to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to have their say!


  1. How much will the left be willing to tolerate? I hope we won’t tolerate it at all. It’s not necessarily a slippery slope for progressives to organize around protecting voters, going to polling places and confronting intimidation and misinformation when it happens. Filming intimidators wouldn’t be bad, either. It’s pretty clear we can’t count on the State to do this for us. The media has likewise failed to address it, preferring to lump intimidation and misinformation in as the symmetrical opposite of voter fraud, things “both sides complain about with no evidence.”

    Monday, September 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  2. patrick wrote:

    Thanks for writing this. If you ever need to convince people that voter-impersonation is not a thing, this article is pretty comprehensive:

    Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  3. Mack K wrote:

    Two points: First, I was a poll monitor in 2008, recruited by the Obama campaign so the initiative by the GOP this time around to organize poll watchers/monitors is just them copying a strategy they feel worked for the Obama campaign in 08. Most supervisors of elections here (Florida) had us stand in roped off pens far away from where voters signed in & received their ballots so challenges were exceedingly difficult unless a ruckus involving the voter signing in was apparent. Secondly, I used to vote absentee ballot when I first moved here just to have the time & comfort of my home to carefully review all the ballot amendments that always accompany a presidential election. I say “used to” because I eventually learned that Florida has a reputation for absentee ballots not making it back to the elections office for counting, and not being counted even if they did. I don’t recall there ever being such a thing as a voting stub, or any means of verifying that my ballot was received or registered. You just dropped the envelope in the mail & hoped it got there and was counted, and seeing as I had to set most of my bills up on autopay because I wasn’t receiving many of them, or on time in our terrible mail system here, I didn’t trust my ballot to even reach the proper office.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  4. Roving Thundercloud wrote:

    We vote by mail in Oregon and this kind of bullying and deception is unthinkable. I hope we never let vote-by-mail go, but I can see that other states wouldn’t be able to enact it because the creeps wouldn’t want to give up their ability to terrorize.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink