UVA Law Students Volunteered to Safeguard Election
By Megan Schiffres
November 11, 2020

The history of poll observers is complicated in Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE-Law students at the University of Virginia spent their Election Day monitoring polling places in Charlottesville for voter intimidation.

“It’s a full-day commitment, because you have to be there when the polls open. You have to be there until the last person in line votes,” said Ariell Branson, vice president in charge of voter protection for the UVA Law Democrats. 

Working as poll observers for the Democratic Party, students used their legal expertise to defend the voting rights of all residents. Under Virginia Code 24.2-604.4, poll observers from each political party or independent candidate can be in the polling room. Their job is to observe the voting process and report to their respective parties if they observe any cases of voter suppression or intimidation at the polls. 

“Both the Democratic Party and Republican Party tend to send trained representatives to the polls to serve as both inside and outside poll observers. To make sure that there’s no issues going on with people being able to vote and people being allowed to,” Branson said. 

Though they didn’t observe any personally, concerns about attempted interference in the Virginia election were not unfounded. 

In the Commonwealth, two cases of voter intimidation were reported since early voting began in September. On the second day of early voting, Trump supporters in Fairfax harassed voters while they walked to a polling location. On Election Day, someone called in a bomb threat on a polling place in Norfolk.

President Trump encouraged his supporters to interfere. During the first 2020 presidential debate, he told them to “go to the polls and watch very closely.”

This comment, which many interpreted as a command by the President to interfere in the election, rang alarm bells for electoral departments and organizations across the country. 

‘We were prepared’

State officials said they prepared for anything.

“We were prepared for anything that might be thrown at us. [We] tried to anticipate problems and eliminate them ahead of time and then be prepared for anything that might come our way. We [had] interdisciplinary teams of lawyers and professional staff ready to step in and go into court anywhere in the state if need be,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

From Branson’s perspective, poll observers are an important piece of the Commonwealth’s strategy to discourage voter suppression and to make voters feel safe going to the polls. 

“I think in a lot of ways it operates as a backstop. I think people knowing that there are advocates there on their behalf, they feel more comfortable,” Branson said. “At the end of the day the main goal is to make sure no one gets disenfranchised.”

However, some voters in Charlottesville were alarmed to see observers at the polls this year. 

“(They) were saying we were trying to dissuade people from voting for Trump, that was an argument we heard frequently,” Branson said. “Our goal is to ensure that no matter what party people are voting for, everyone gets to vote.”

In addition to their observation work, UVA law students helped voters outside polling places check their registration. They also helped people find their correct polling location, and updated voters on the documents needed to cast a ballot. Observers from the law school also handed out food to voters waiting in line. 

The history of poll observers

People with concerns about the impartiality of poll observers do have historical precedence to support their reservations. 

Since its inception, the practice of sending observers to the polls has been politically motivated, according to the curator of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Dr. Karen Sherry. 

“Until universal suffrage became more widespread, initially poll watching was very partisan. To make sure that your party, the voters for your party, were being allowed to vote. And that the voters of the other party weren’t exercising any fraud. And vice-versa for the other side,” Sherry said. “For many decades early in the history of our nation, poll watching was more about making sure your party was treated fairly.”

Poll observers have been used to disenfranchise minority communities since they gained the right to vote in the United States. When black men earned the right to vote in 1870, Virginia passed a law that gave everyday citizens the right to challenge the eligibility of voters lining up at the polls.

“Any voter could challenge any other voter who they even suspected of not being eligible to vote. Because of the broad language of that, that law came to be used to suppress the African American vote. Very often, white poll watchers would deliberately question black voters just to kind of hold up the process. To hold up the line. To throw a wrench in the practice of black men being able to vote,” said Sherry. 

Poll observers influenced elections

Poll observers have influenced American elections since their founding, according to Sherry, and their presence at the polls continues to create an opportunity for voter suppression. 

“I think it’s still very much used to suppress minority votes today,” Sherry said. “We still see that happening to a certain extent these days.” 

Sherry pointed to a case in 1981 that involved the Republican National Committee in New Jersey. In this case, the RNC organized vigilante squads to act as poll observers. Their real purpose, however, was to intimidate minority voters by displaying firearms at the polls. The RNC was sued by the Democratic Party, and the case was settled with Republicans agreeing to a consent decree. The RNC swore to allow a federal court to review the party’s “ballot security” programs in the future. 

In 2018, that decree was lifted after a federal judge approved an appeal by the RNC. The 2020 election marks the first since 1980 where the RNC could create its own plan for “ballot security” programs.

Meg Schiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at [email protected].

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