Pistols, Pickup Trucks And Trump Flags: How Voter Intimidation Invaded Polling Sites

Pistols, Pickup Trucks And Trump Flags: How Voter Intimidation Invaded Polling Sites
Photo by Anthony Crider/ CC BY 2.0

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

While the 2020 election went more smoothly than most had dared to hope, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan election protection group, nonetheless received a steady drumbeat of complaints to its hotline about voter intimidation and harassment during early voting and on Election Day.

The reports described threats, overly aggressive electioneering, racist language and more. They came from states across the country, including those where the outcome was decided by relatively small numbers of votes.

Since Nov. 3, ProPublica has followed up on these reports, attempting to verify details with complainants and other witnesses and to review available documentation, including videos, social media posts and police records. In many cases, no one would go on the record or what happened could not be substantiated or did not rise to the level of intimidation. But we were able to confirm several of the incidents.

It is impossible to know how much intimidation and harassment affected voting this year; the record turnout suggests it was outweighed in most cases by voters' determination to be heard. Even so, the cases we examined show that the issue remains all too real, and they reflect a deep political polarization that will long outlast the 2020 presidential contest.

Voter intimidation is characteristic of elections when the country is deeply divided, as it was during the civil rights movement, said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University. “If you go back not too far, we have lots of examples of outright voter intimidation and violence to prevent people from voting," he said. “There's a long, long history of it."

What was unusual during this campaign was that President Donald Trump stoked tensions by urging supporters to monitor polling places for voter fraud, especially in areas with large minority populations, Abramowitz said. “We've never had a president actually make comments like that."

Here are six cases where voters felt intimidated or harassed, largely told in the participants' own voices:

“There was a truck that kept revving his engine and driving really close to my car, kind of like playing chicken."

Springville, Utah

Kate Gabbitas, 22, left work at 6:30 p.m. to cast her first ever-ballot in a presidential election. As she neared her polling site at the Spanish Fork Fairgrounds, about 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, she hit a traffic jam. At first, she assumed it was a normal Election Day rush.

“Probably like four blocks away from the polling station, I was like, 'Why am I hearing so much honking?' Then three blocks away, traffic was pretty, pretty crazy ... we were going probably 10 or 20 under the speed limit. Just car after car was going by me honking, honking, honking."

As she got closer, she saw groups of people in pickup trucks waving Trump flags and yelling. It was a “Trump train" that the president's supporters had organized on social media.

Gabbitas has autism. The noise overwhelmed her, and she called her boyfriend to tell him she was thinking of turning around. “I said, 'It's really noisy and loud, I think I'm going to go home.' He said, 'Wait, that's voter intimidation.'"

She reluctantly stayed. Inside the building, poll workers were doing their best to tune out the commotion. She picked up her ballot, filled it out and returned to her car. Then she joined a line of drivers heading to another location to turn in their ballots.

“There were three pickup trucks in the parking lot trying to cut in line," she said. “There was a truck that kept revving his engine and driving really close to my car, kind of like playing chicken."

She struggled to drive despite all the distractions. “I probably saw, I don't know, five to 10 Confederate flags, a couple of libertarian flags. I only saw two different trucks that had guns in the back ... but it was really dark. I couldn't see some well, and we were all driving. ... But a lot of the trucks did have people sitting in the back. Then people were just yelling and some of the people who were pulled over on the side of the road were just yelling."

When she got home, she cried “for a long time."

County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner, a Republican, said the region had an unprecedented 89% voter turnout. She said that poll workers handled disruptions well on Election Day, and that the sheriff's department was on call and ready to be deployed. “We never ended up actually using them because the local folks did such a good job. People were very compliant." To avoid such disturbances in future elections, she said, she plans to put trained poll workers outside.

Gabbitas told friends and family about her nerve-wracking experience. They “said it usually isn't like that, that I shouldn't expect it next time. But I wouldn't be surprised if people didn't want to vote."

On a bright, warm late-October afternoon in western North Carolina, Deborah Lewis, a Sierra Club volunteer, pulled up to the Weaverville Town Hall polling station to hand out a list of candidates endorsed by the organization.

Soon, she saw two men show up together, one of them wearing camouflage pants and with a black pistol holstered to his belt. They stood by a brick fountain outside the 50-foot buffer zone in which electioneering and harassment are prohibited. Afraid of being noticed, Lewis surreptitiously snapped a picture of them. Several more armed men arrived, until the group numbered at least seven. Many voters had to pass them to enter the site. A Democratic Party poll greeter, Robert Thornton, confronted the men and told them they couldn't carry guns there, but they responded that they were within their rights.

“I've never seen anything like that at a voting place," said Lewis, who has volunteered at the polls in North Carolina for four years.

Under North Carolina law, the men had the legal right to carry weapons openly. They stayed beyond the buffer zone. According to Lewis, Thornton and other witnesses, the men never brandished their weapons. There is no evidence that they approached any voters.

Nonetheless, Lewis found them frightening. She left a half-hour into her three-hour shift. “If I was a voter and I had to go past a bunch of guys with guns, I would not feel comfortable going to the polls," she said.

County Democractic Chair Jeff Rose said he “talked to plenty of people who didn't want to be there anymore." He added: “If they don't want to be there as a volunteer, I don't imagine they'd want to be there as voters."

The Weaverville Police Department is next door to the polling station, and after Thornton called 911, officers arrived to de-escalate the situation. No arrests were made. Police said that the men left quickly, but Thornton said they stayed for at least an hour. After the incident, Thornton, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, asked state legislators to introduce a bill restricting open carry within 150 feet of polling places; he's hopeful that they will do so in the next session.

Buncombe County Republican Chair Jerry Greene said that, while guns can intimidate voters at a polling place, North Carolina residents ultimately have the right to carry. "If folks know people are carrying there, they may feel intimidated. The other side of it is that folks have a constitutional right to carry. I still stick with the Constitution," he said.

“One of the guys grabbed the megaphone and screamed, 'Keep killing black men!'"

Canton, Ohio

In Canton, Ohio, supporters of Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden lined up on opposite sides of a street leading to the early voting location at the Stark County Board of Elections.

On Oct. 31, Bishop G.L. Evans II, president of the Stark County Black Caucus, was setting up a booth on the Biden side of the street. His small group of Pastors for a Peaceful Election volunteers, which supported Biden, was handing out coffee, doughnuts and hand warmers to voters.

A few minutes later, a Trump supporter came over to Evans' tent and placed a Trump sign directly in front of their stand. “It wasn't 2 feet. It wasn't 3 feet. It was inches from the tent," Evans said.

Evans moved the sign away. A few minutes later, a group of Trump supporters came up to him, one of them holding a megaphone. “They ran over and a guy with the bullhorn got close to my face and screamed: 'Don't vote for the party that killed Malcolm X! Martin Luther King deserved it! Keep the genocide in the hood!'" Evans said. (Three Nation of Islam members were convicted of Malcolm X's 1965 assassination, which had nothing to do with the Democratic Party.)

State Rep. Thomas West, a Democrat who represents Stark County, said he also heard Trump supporters targeting Black voters as they drove into the polling site. A white male Trump supporter called a Black female Biden supporter a “bitch," West said. “It would only be for people in cars that passed them that were African American," he said.

“One of the guys grabbed the megaphone and screamed, 'Keep killing black men!'" said a white female voter, who requested anonymity to protect her privacy. “That is real legit voter intimidation."

The commotion was unavoidable for voters driving in to vote and for many of those waiting in lines that stretched outside and around the block. More than 50 people left the polling site because they didn't want to engage, although some returned to vote later, Evans said.

The group also tried to drown out the gospel music playing from his tent, Evans said. “They brought a big speaker and they started playing these songs by Johnny Rebel," including one that used a racist term.

Evans called the Stark County Sheriff's Office. It sent officers, but they didn't help, he said. “These sheriffs were pretty much with the Trumpers," he said. They checked his group's food truck permits and permissions to have a booth at the voting location. And while the officers did ask both sides to keep things civil, they never addressed the Trump group's racial comments, Evans said.

The Stark County Sheriff's Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Early, an administrative assistant for the Stark County Board of Elections, said that his office did not know of any formal police reports stemming from this year's voting or any reports of racist language. Early said voters did call to complain about signs or pamphlets, but those are allowed if they are more than 100 feet from the polling place. “Both political parties were out there with signs and flags," Early said, “but people tend to be intimidated by the ones they didn't agree with."

“I can't imagine how a voter who had lost a loved one to COVID might feel at the sight of a hearse."

Spring, Texas

On Oct. 24, during early voting in Spring, Texas, Democratic Party volunteer Aimee Pearce, 35, was surprised to come face-to-face with an apparent corpse with a mail-in ballot in its hand. The body was actually a homemade mannequin in an open coffin sticking out of the trunk of a hearse parked near the volunteers' tents. In the passenger seat was a skeleton holding a sign that read: “When I Die...Please Don't Let Me Vote Democrat!!"

B.J. Apgar, 44, a lifelong resident of nearby Conroe and the hearse's driver, created the macabre display, which he paraded at polling places throughout Montgomery County. “The car was not done to be an intimidation factor, it was done to be an educational factor," Apgar said.

Apgar said his goal was to highlight the scenario that, as Trump has alleged without evidence, Democrats were casting votes under the names of dead people. “It was never done to make anybody afraid. It was done to bring awareness to get people voting," Apgar said.

Apgar said he has been overwhelmed with support. Strangers sometimes offer to fill up the hearse's gas tank. He's also received cash donations. On his Facebook page, “Hearse Trump Train," he updates the whereabouts of the automobile, which is owned by his mother.

Apgar covered every side of the car in signs. Slogans included: “All Lives Matter," “God Guns Country" and “Trump Keep America Great 2020."

The sign closest to the coffin boasted, “Collecting Democrat Votes One Dead Stiff At A Time."

And in the back, “Clinton Foundation Suicide Limo Services 1-800-HANG-URSELF."

A day after Pearce saw the hearse, she shared the description and a picture with ProPublica's Electionland project. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 3, the Election Protection hotline received at least six other calls about the hearse from concerned voters in Montgomery County. Pearce doesn't know whether or not the hearse deterred people from voting. But she wondered how the morbid suggestions would affect voters who had recently lost someone to the coronavirus.

“The 'joke' about suicide printed on the back of the vehicle, when mental health issues and suicide rates have increased dramatically during the last nine months due to COVID-related lockdowns and quarantines, is unconscionable," Pearce said. “In Texas, COVID-19 was not a valid reason for obtaining a mail-in ballot. ... I can't imagine how a voter who had lost a loved one to COVID might feel at the sight of a hearse."

“I thought we were just going to march in collective power, and I thought I was going to go vote. ... But it didn't happen that way."

Graham, North Carolina

Avery Harvey, 30, devoted months to registering people of color in Alamance County, North Carolina, to vote. “The whole summer we'd been pounding in these neighborhoods," he said. He'd gone door to door and stood on street corners to spread the word to as many people as possible. On Oct. 31, the last day of early voting and voter registration in North Carolina, he was finally going to register himself.

That day, more than 200 people in Graham, a city of about 15,600 people, gathered for a march to the polls. “It was a historic march for us. I knew there was gonna be a lot of young voters that I'd reached out to specifically. I wanted to register and vote right there with them," he said.

They planned to walk half a mile from Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to the polling place. The day was bright and clear, and the march had drawn a variety of participants: “Kids, old, young, Black, white, Hispanic. It was beautiful," Harvey said.

But many of them, including Harvey, never reached their destination. They'd scheduled a rally at a Confederate monument on the way to the polling place. There they paused, many of them kneeling, for eight minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of George Floyd.

“We're marching for him too. For the ones who lost their lives, they can't vote. Their voice was silenced. We uplift that," Harvey said.

Police officers escorted the marchers down the street and stood with deputies from the Alamance County Sheriff's Office on the outskirts of the square. The police were familiar with the march's purpose. Its organizer, the Rev. Gregory Drumwright, had met with the City Council and police chief that month to discuss his plans for a march to the polls and to seek a permit, which the county gave him, according to court filings. But while participants were getting back on their feet after honoring Floyd, officers shot a chemical spray into the crowd, according to court documents.

“Chaos. You hear many sounds. Screaming. Yelling. Kids. Crying. Panic." Some of the crowd ran away. A woman in a wheelchair began to have a seizure, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the marchers and video taken at the scene. Local news outlets reported that multiple kids were pepper-sprayed and vomited.

About a half-hour later, as the rally resumed, another round of pepper spray hit the marchers. According to the sheriff's department, deputies were attempting to remove a container of gas that was near a generator used for the rally because it was a danger and against the rules of the permit. March participants began shoving deputies away from the generator, the sheriff's department said, and an officer who was pushed to the ground deployed her pepper spray. Other deputies joined in the spraying.

Two days after the march, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the ACLU of North Carolina sued the Alamance County sheriff and the Graham chief of police in federal court on behalf of the organizers and participants. The complaint alleges that law enforcement deprived Alamance County voters “of their fundamental right to vote free from intimidation, harassment, threats, or other forms of coercion." In statements, the police and sheriff departments have denied wrongdoing. They have not filed a response to the allegations in the lawsuit, which is pending.

Both major police associations in the area endorsed Trump for reelection. Sheriff Terry Johnson, a Republican, clashed with the U.S. Department of Justice under former President Barack Obama, which sued him over alleged discriminatory targeting of Latinos for arrest, seizure and detention. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge, and the sheriff reached a settlement with the DOJ in 2016.

March organizers dispute the sheriff's version of events. According to their legal complaint, Drumwright had permission to use a generator for his PA system, and he approached a deputy to ask why the generator was being unplugged. The spray was then discharged onto the marchers without warning.

“I tried to hold my ground to be honest, but when people are using chemicals, you know, it's hard to," Harvey said. He was hit by the chemical vapor and was one of 23 people arrested for various offenses including failure to disperse. They all got out of jail by the evening, but for Harvey, it was too late to register to vote. Most, including him, were released on the condition that they leave the Graham city limits for 72 hours. The charges against them are pending.

Harvey said he's still shaken from the incident. “That stuff can take a toll on you," he said. “I feel disappointed. I feel let down. By the county, by the people that are supposed to be here and protect and serve us."

“I thought we were just going to march in collective power, and I thought I was going to go vote," Harvey said. “But it didn't happen that way. Lethal force happened against a group of peaceful people. The way things are going in Alamance County, that's not democracy."

“Yeah, I lost my cool because I'm sick and tired of being spit at."

Brooklyn, New York

Around 10 a.m. on Election Day, Eric Nocera's truck pulled up at a polling place at a middle school in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Nocera, 50, who owns a local auto repair shop, said that he was dropping off his son to vote, and that he didn't intend to intimidate anyone. But he ended up parking his truck and staying for an hour. The truck was adorned with large Trump flags and voters nearby took issue with the display of political paraphernalia. New York State bans electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place; Nocera and the police say his truck stayed beyond that distance. Still, he was much closer to voters waiting in line on the sidewalk, observers said.

A man approached the rear of Nocera's truck and began filming it with his cellphone. “I jumped out of my vehicle," Nocera said. “I'm like: 'What are you doing? Why are you touching my car? Why are you taking a picture of my license plate? What are you trying to do? Are you trying to intimidate me?'"

Hilary Shepherd, 30, a freelance journalist, was serving as a poll worker that day and saw parts of the exchange. Nocera, she said, initially refused to move his car and told someone to “get a fucking tape measure." Shepherd said she heard Nocera shout: “All of you guys are fucking pussies. Liberalism is a mental disorder. All of you are sick."

Whitney Hu, a community organizer and activist who's running for City Council, was in front of the polling place passing out pamphlets for the Working Families Party. Hu, Shepherd and Kathy Park Price, a nonpartisan election observer, quickly posted videos of the argument to Twitter.

The dispute blew up on social media. Videos show Nocera using homophobic language as well as telling a man he'd “put him in the hospital" and to “go get some Vagisil," a treatment for vaginal itching. Rex Chapman, a former NBA player turned viral video hound, tweeted the video out and called it “pure voter intimidation."

Park Price called the city hotline twice. “It felt like it was a fragile situation where he could be set off or someone could be set off. It felt very volatile," she told ProPublica.

At one point, Hu said, she was afraid of being attacked. “This goes beyond electioneering and is like literally intimidation," she said.

Police who were stationed at the polling place or arrived later seemed reluctant to intervene. “The supervisors or patrol cops never asked us what we saw or what we heard," Hu said. When police were asked whether Nocera was allowed to be within 100 feet of the line of voters, “they didn't even address that," she said. “They did not acknowledge the questions being asked. It was as if it wasn't happening."

Nocera said police told him he had the right to be there. After about an hour, they asked him to leave, and he and his son drove away. He voted at a different location without any problems, he said.

Nocera said that social media distorted the situation. Still, he acknowledged, “I said some shit I shouldn't have said. Yeah, I lost my cool because I'm sick and tired of being spit at."

Nocera said that he does not hate gay people and that he was on edge after his family was attacked at a “Jews for Trump" rally in late October. Rocks were thrown and an egg hit his mother in the face, he said. “We were just being Americans. We were supporting our president. And for some reason, it feels like I'm living in a Third World communist country that, you know, we can't support who we want openly. And we've got to be afraid to be attacked."

Since the incident at the middle school, Nocera said, he's lost business and he and his son have received death threats. A Twitter user posted his license plate number and his parking tickets. Hu tweeted out a photo of his auto body shop. Nocera's shop had a five-star rating on Yelp before Election Day; it now has a two-star rating and his repair shop's page was temporarily disabled by Yelp after a flood of angry photos and posts, some of which call Nocera a racist. Nocera said he's contacted Yelp, but the posts haven't been removed. A Yelp spokesperson said that it added an unusual activity alert to the page on the day after the election, and that it has taken down some posts that violate its guidelines because they are “media-fueled reviews that are not based on first-hand consumer experiences."

Regarding his critics, Nocera said: “You know, these people, they claim to be antifascist. What they're doing is the epitome of being a fascist. To track me down, put my information out there. I mean, I don't know how it's not illegal, but that should be illegal."

Although police officers witnessed the disturbance, no police report was filed, and Nocera was not charged with any offense. On Election Day, the department summed up the incident on Twitter: “Upon investigation, the vehicle was an appropriate distance away. There was no interference with voting."

The NYPD is currently investigating the threats against Nocera and his son.

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