As the 2020 Presidential Election heats up concern over protecting the polls has risen as well.

This year has been highlighted by the pandemic, protests for social justice, riots and looting. Now, the most contentious presidential race ever.

What do the pandemic, protests, riots, looting and the presidential race all have in common? Because of these, there has been a surge in requests for private security to protect polling places.

A Brief History of Voting in the U.S.

Voting is not just a time honored tradition, but an inalienable right protected by the Constitution. You are not required by law to vote. However, it is your right do so if you wish to participate.

In 1789, the United States’ Constitution granted the states the power to set voting requirements. Voting was, however, set aside for white males. Conversely, people of color, Native Americans, women, the poor and other groups were excluded from voting.

However, the United States gradually included minority groups to join in the voting process. For example, the 15th Amendment guaranteed non-white men and freed male slaves the right vote in 1870.

Nevertheless, voter suppression continued.

Voter Suppression

The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. The 15th Amendment gave them the right to vote. However, thanks, in part, to Jim Crow Laws and the KKK, voter suppression continued.

And it was violent.

Polling places in black areas were burned to the ground. Freed black men were beaten and sometimes murdered at polling places. White employers threatened their black employees. The KKK donned hoods and torches to intimidate black families.

In addition, 60% of voting-age black males could not read. However, in order to vote, they had to pass a literacy test.

Women’s Suffrage

Additionally, women also did not have the right to vote.

After the First World War, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining steam. However, women have been fighting for their rights since the founding of the United States.

Their message was simple: “Give us the right to vote.”

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, extended Constitutional protection to all citizens. The word citizen, however, referred to males only.

Since the Constitution granted the states the power to set voting requirements, some states out west began extending the vote to women as early as 1910.

Suffragettes echoed slogans such as:

“We Were Voters Out West! Why Deny Our Rights in the East?”

Suffragettes

Finally, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Women now had to the right to vote.

However, the right to vote for women and black men would remain a point of contention for decades after. Subsequently, protecting polling places has been a point of concern for many.

Protecting the Polls

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020. As we near that date, tensions have been escalating day-by-day. Many security firms have received calls to protect polling places.

However, is it legal to do so?

Short answer: It depends. But, no.

If you are a government officials or a private actor, you are prohibited from conducting what is called “ballot security” operations. Ballot security operations challenge whether a voter can cast a ballot or not. This is highly risky.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this type of operation “can easily lead to illegal intimidation, discrimination, or disruption at the polls.”

Intimidation includes, but is not limited to:

  • Baseless or abusive challenges to voters’ eligibility.
  • Direct confrontation of voters.
  • Use of insulting, offensive, or threatening language or raised voices in and around polling places.
  • Blocking polling-place entrances.
  • Following and photographing voters, recording license plate numbers, and visiting voters’ homes.
  • Brandishing weapons in front of voters.
  • Dissemination of misleading information about elections.

Every state does allow poll watchers, however. These individuals are volunteers who ensure a smooth voting process for all US citizens. In 39 states, poll watchers are allowed to “challenge voters” at the polls.

But, that is not what we are referring to. The question is are private security firms being hired to challenge voters or protect voters from outside threats?

Threats to Polling Places

Again, this year has been highlighted by the pandemic, protests, riots and looting. The presidential election is the cherry on top of 2020.

What happens if there are protests at a polling place? What happens if riots and looting breakouts during said protests?

If people are unable to vote in peace does one inalienable right trump another?

Absolutely not.

But, where does security come in? Can polling places hire security to protect the perimeter or the voters themselves?

It is a fine line to walk. A walk we would not recommend. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in Pennsylvania, for example, intimidating a voter carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison and $15,000. And doing so outside the person’s own designated polling place is a separate offense.

What security calls deterrents some may call intimidation. If you receive a call to provide security services it is best to pass it along and leave it to the local authorities.

However, if there are threats to not just people, but to our democracy as a whole we all must do our part. If people want to threaten voters, specifically at polling sites, then we are all obligated to protect this sacred right and our fellow citizens.