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Some early voters face long lines, confusion at the polls

Electionland, a coalition of media companies covering access to the vote, identified a variety of issues happening around the country.
6 Nov 2016 – 12:37 AM EDT
Voters line up to vote in Austin, Texas. Crédito: Ben Sklar/Getty Images

As voters in West Palm Beach, Florida, cast their ballots during early voting last week, some came across an unpleasant surprise: a person with a bullhorn yelling at Hillary Clinton supporters.

"Separate the people!" the woman yelled last Sunday. "Over here we have the LGBT, over here we have the blacks, and then over here we have the Hispanics. But I’m going to tell you something, the hard working American people that served in the armed forces support Donald Trump!”

Electionland, a ProPublica project to monitor voting problems in conjunction with Univision and other media partners, reported on this incident on Tuesday.

While many early voters have been able to vote successfully, some problems have arisen during one of the most bitterly contentious U.S. elections in decades. Along with voter protection groups, Electionland has identified a variety of issues, including long lines, social media hoaxes, and confusion over voter ID in Texas.

Problems casting a ballot in early voting

Voters have spent an hour or more in line in several states, including Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

"One of the reasons we're seeing a lot of long lines is not necessarily because of voting issues but because the turnout for this election is far higher than expected," said Jessica Huseman, a senior reporting fellow on ProPublica's Electionland project. "People are exhausted by this election and just want to get it over with."

Historically, Latino voters tend to wait longer in line than whites; in 2012, for example, Hispanic voters waited an average of 19 minutes in line, compared to 12 for whites, one study found.

In Texas, a number of voters have been confused by the law, according to reports from the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which runs an election hotline to monitor voting problems.

The Lone Star state passed one of the country's strictest voter ID laws in 2011, and it was struck down by an appeals court in July. But some poll workers are unaware of changes to the law ordered by the court and are still asking for photo ID, while in some polling places, posters explaining the old rules are on prominent display.

Maria Peralta, senior national coordinator for the Lawyers Committee's Legal Mobilization Project, says people in Texas are confused.

"Since last Monday we've gotten close to 600 calls from Texas voters, many of whom have expressed concern or outright complained by incomplete or inaccurate information they've been given at polling locations," she said.

Language access for Spanish speakers is another issue. In Georgia, where there's a growing Puerto Rican population, there's been insufficient translation for Spanish-speaking voters, as well as voter purges and polling places moved to places like sheriff's offices, said Katherine Culliton-González, senior counsel at the nonpartisan public policy organization Demos.

And in Miami, Florida, a Lawyer's Committee volunteer witnessed a poll watcher confronting voters who were asking for language help.

In several states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, voters have not received their absentee ballots, which means they won't be able to send them back in time. In Pennsylvania's Montgomery County, a judge extended the deadline to send in absentee ballots, noting some 17,000 people could be otherwise disenfranchised.

Poll watchers and voter intimidation

Donald Trump's claims about voter fraud and his calls for amateur poll watchers have caused concerns about voter intimidation.

But despite the West Palm Beach case and another similar incident in Florida, Electionland hasn't yet found widespread patterns of in-person intimidation.

Election Day could be another story.

On Oct. 31, the Democratic Party filed lawsuits against Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican Parties of Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania for “conspiring to threaten, intimidate, and thereby prevent minority voters in urban neighborhoods from voting in the 2016 election.”

"To protect the integrity of our voting system we have to create an environment to cast a ballot freely and without intimidation," said Peralta. "Any report, any threat is completely unacceptable."

The Lawyer's Committee received several complaints about alleged voter intimidation in Texas, Florida, Maryland and Oregon, Peralta said, but cautioned that they haven't been able to substantiate the claims without representatives on the ground yet.

"With reports of outright intimidation, we have been communicating with both election officials and or law enforcement agencies," she added. "This campaign season has created an environment where people are very nervous about what might happen at the polls, and I think that we need to be ready for anything."

This is especially true given the fact that this is the first presidential election since the Supreme Court dismantled part of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision allowed states to change election law and procedures without federal government approval, making it harder for the government to prevent potentially discriminatory practices from going into effect.

The decision also led the Justice Department to cut the number of election observers it sends to the polls, from observers in 23 states in 2012 to fewer than five this year.

That's an especially big problem considering Trump's call to arms, some of whom have been answered by people who say they plan to target people of color.

"The remarks I've heard from supporters of one of the candidates have been more racist than I've seen in a long time," said Culliton-González. "I've litigated against hostile and racist treatment of Latino voters but I haven't seen it at this scale."

And voter intimidation isn't just happening in real life; it's happening on social media, thanks to memes with false information.

Electionland has been busy busting these myths. For example, a widely circulated video showing ballot stuffing was actually from Russia, and an image alleging an arrest of an undocumented immigrant at a polling place was actually photoshopped.

ProPublica also reported that Twitter wouldn’t take down tweets trying to trick Democrats into voting by text message (the site then began to remove some of the offending tweets). It also reported that George Soros does not in fact own voting machines, in response to rumors on social media.

"People should be aware that if they see something on social they should verify it," said Huseman. "We're seeing lots of stuff that's like that ... It's all bullshit."

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