The right to vote is a “civil right” that is protected by the United States Constitution and various federal laws. Also known as “civil liberties,” civil rights are those fundamental freedoms or privileges that are given to people by virtue of their citizenship. The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting discrimination against all people, including minorities and people with limited English speaking skills. The Voting Rights Act requires that state and local elections must be equally open to all minority voters. It also provides that each vote is equal. Despite the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, voters, prospective voters, and civil rights advocates report that voter intimidation and racially-based vote suppression have been used–with increasing frequency–in recent years.

Due to numerous charges of voter intimidation and vote suppression in recent elections, notably the 2000 presidential election, the 2004 presidential election received increased scrutiny. For example, the United States Department of Justice planned to send more than 1,000 poll watchers to voting sites. These federal poll watchers were specifically looking for allegations of voter intimidation, as well as vote suppression. Civil rights organizations and political groups were watching closely, with the former likely watching for voter intimidation and vote suppression and some of the latter groups more likely watching for voter fraud. The Department of Justice can file criminal charges against individuals, officials, or groups that allegedly practice voter intimidation.

What is “voter intimidation?”

When African-American men were given the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, methods of voter discrimination were often blatant and obvious. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, these methods were replaced by subtler–but arguably more effective–tactics meant to “disenfranchise” minority voters through intimidation. Although historically limited to African-American voters, incidents of voter intimidation are now being reported with greater frequency in Latino communities. Since the 2000 presidential election, many reports of voter intimidation of Latinos, especially in Florida, have surfaced. Voting rights advocates believe that increased intimidation is taking place as Latino communities increase in size and as Latinos are registering to vote in record numbers.

Voter intimidation occurs when individual voters or, more likely, a group of voters decide not to vote because they have been threatened or mislead. For example, minority citizens who are eligible to register to vote may be given incorrect information about registration requirements. Voters may be confused or harassed to the point that they do not wish to appear at the polling places.

In 2002, the Department of Justice established the Voting Access and Integrity Initiative. The goals of the Initiative are to increase the Department of Justice’s ability to deter election discrimination and fraud and to prosecute such offenses. Since the implementation of the Initiative, the number of election discrimination and fraud investigations has risen. Many of these claims have involved claims of racial discrimination or refusal by poll workers to explain voting rules or to answer questions about voting procedures or ballots.

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