Battle over ballots: The tactics used to suppress and contest votes

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There are still a few days left in the US presidential campaign but almost 75 million votes have already been cast, hinting the turnout for this year’s election will be the highest in America’s history.

But the very act of filling in a ballot has been controversial: hundreds of lawsuits have been filed over early voting; voter suppression and intimidation tactics have been commonplace; Donald Trump has alleged widespread vote fraud, and there’s the ever-present threat of foreign interference.

US President Donald Trump has claimed widespread fraud in early voting and has urged his supporters to monitor polling stations.Credit:Graphics

Here are a few of the tactics we’ve seen so far, any of which could help decide if Trump or Joe Biden becomes the next US president.

Voter intimidation

In Florida last week, two armed men dressed as security guards stood at a campaign tent outside a voting centre, falsely claiming they had been hired by the Trump campaign to guard the area.

In Pennsylvania, Trump officials videotaped voters as they delivered their ballots into drop boxes, supposedly in a bid to catch potential violations.

And in Virginia last month, early voters faced off with a group of chanting Trump supporters who blocked the entrance to a polling station in Fairfax County, forcing Democrats to need escorts to cast their vote.

While Republicans argue these actions are all part and parcel of a fiercely contested election, Democrats believe they amount to voter intimidation. US Federal law makes it illegal for people to “intimidate, threaten, or coerce” others for the purpose of interfering in their vote.

Trump supporters rally outside an early voting booth in Miami, Florida. Credit:Bloomberg

But voter intimidation isn’t always overt. According to American Civil Liberties Union, it can also involve polling workers aggressively questioning voters' citizenship or other qualifications – something that predominantly disenfranchises black and Latino communities.

Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden has urged Americans to vote early.Credit:AP

This has been a growing concern in recent weeks, particularly after the President – who has sowed doubt about voter fraud for months – talked up the need for law enforcement officials and other so-called “poll watchers” to monitor voting centres.

“I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump told viewers during the first presidential debate. “I am urging them to do it.”

Some, it seems, have heeded the President’s call.

Voting fraud

Trump has claimed "big problems and discrepancies with mail-in ballot all over the USA" but Associated Press fact-checkers have reviewed the examples and said that although there have been sporadic reports of voters receiving mail ballots that were incorrectly formatted and other localised glitches, the large-scale disenfranchisement that election experts worried might happen has not been seen.

US President Donald Trump in Arizona on Thursday AEDT.Credit:AP

The Brennan Centre for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004 per cent to 0.0009 per cent, based on studies of past elections, AP reported.

Foreign interference

It was just before 8pm in America last Thursday night when national security officials fronted a hastily assembled news conference to warn voters of attempts by Iran to influence the US election.

A poster showing six wanted Russian military intelligence officers is displayed in Washington in October.Credit:AP

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist, accused Iran of being behind fake emails, purportedly by the right wing group Proud Boys, which had been sent to threaten recipients in Florida and Alaska. Some carried the warning: "You will vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you.”

Ratcliffe described this as part of a campaign designed to “intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump."

According to the FBI, Russia has also meddled in this year's election by obtaining voter registration data in a bid to spread disinformation in the lead up to the poll.

While critics questioned the reference to Trump given the emails were sent to Democratic voters, foreign inference is nonetheless a pertinent threat this year, just as it was in 2016 when Russia was found to have meddled in the contest between Trump and his then Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

National security officials believe they are more prepared to tackle the threat, but have urged voters to be diligent.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” said FBI chief Michael Wray.

“When we see indications of foreign interference or federal election crimes, we’re going to aggressively investigate and work with our partners to quickly take appropriate action.”

Dodgy drop boxes

Over the past few weeks, dark grey metal boxes began popping up around California – some near gun shops, others at churches, some close to Republican party offices.

They had labels identifying them as “official” ballot boxes — state sanctioned places where voters can deliver their completed ballot papers.

California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas demonstrates how to use one of the party’s unofficial ballot drop boxes.Credit:AP

However, these were not official drop boxes at all, but rather, fake boxes placed around Los Angeles, Orange County and Fresno by the Californian Republican Party.

State officials say the action wasn’t just illegal, it could also lead to election fraud — the very thing that Trump has been warning would happen at the hands of the Democrats.

The Californian Republic Party claimed its actions were legal because it was simply “ballot harvesting” – a practice in which third parties collect voters’ completed ballots.

But state officials disagreed, and ordered the GOP to remove the boxes. It also urged those who may have used them to sign up to the state’s voter tracking website to make sure their vote is counted.

Court challenges

This year’s election could end up being the most litigious in history. According to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections project, more than 300 lawsuits have already been filed in 44 states, on everything from the use of drop boxes to absentee voting rights and counting methods.

Just days before the presidential election, millions of mail-in ballots have still not been returned in key battleground states.Credit:AP

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court rejected a push by Democrats and civil rights groups to extend the deadline for counting postal ballots received after election day in the key battleground state of Wisconsin. But on Wednesday justices allowed extended periods for receiving ballots in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Earlier Kathy Boockvar, the Pennsylvania Secretary of State, urged voters to stop "putting their ballots in the mail", and to drop them off in person instead.

Also in Wisconsin this week, the court heard a case involving an attempt by conservatives to remove about 130,000 voters from the electoral roll.

A Texas voter signs in before dropping off her mail-in ballot. Credit:Austin American-Statesman

Travis County, which takes in the city of Austin and has a population of 1.2 million, had four designated sites. Now it’s down to one.

Abbott said his order enhanced election security and he insisted he was expanding voter access through a previous decision to extend early voting from two to nearly three weeks.

But critics argued that reducing the number of ballot drop-off sites made it harder for older and disabled Texans to vote and increased the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"Make no mistake, democracy itself is on the ballot," said Texas Democrat Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.

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