UVA Law students planning to be ‘poll observers’ to prevent voter intimidation and harassment

UVA Law students planning to be ‘poll observers’ to prevent voter intimidation and harassment
Voters line up in downtown Charlottesville to cast their ballot in the 2020 election. (Source: WVIR)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - University of Virginia Law School students are gearing up to act as “poll observers,” at polling places in Charlottesville and Albemarle County on Election Day. Their main objective: To prevent voter intimidation and harassment.

“The purpose of poll observation is to guarantee to make sure that people are not dissuaded or intimidated from voting on the basis of being told their ID’s are invalid or they’re not properly registered and to make sure to try to be able to address those issues if possible,"UVA Law Democrats VP of Voter Protection Ariell Branson explained.

Poll observers will be stationed inside and outside polling places, working to prevent voters from being harassed for their voting choices or, particularly for minority groups, from being challenged on their registration status.

“Usually they’re standing off to the side. The outside poll observers typically have a chair and they’ll sit and wait and watch and observe the line. And you can consult with those people if you see any issues. Your inside poll observers will be standing right behind your poll officers and observing everything in case anything happens," Branson said.

Branson said although poll observing is nothing new, this year, because of COVID-19, new eyes at the polls are necessary.

“The vast majority of poll workers tend to be older and they’re at higher risk," Branson said. “So there’s really a push now to get younger people involved.”

With new voting laws, those working at the polls trying to help new voters may, in some cases, hinder them.

“There is no need for photo ID anymore, and a lot of people don’t know that, and then think that they’re acting sort of helpfully when actually they’re deterring someone who’s legally allowed to vote," Branson said.

Charlotesville and Albemarle County Police released a statement last week saying: “While our expectation is for an orderly and peaceable election day, our organizations and offices are committed to investigating and prosecuting any violation of the law that involves the intimidation or harassment of citizens seeking to vote.”

They’ll be working alongside observers, should anything happen.

“Our hope is that we stand there for 15 hours and nothing happens and there’s nothing to be reported and everyone gets to vote," Branson said. “Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. And it’s important to make sure there’s sort of a back-stop to protect those that may end up being potentially disenfranchised.”

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