arrowSection 5.1 - Polling Place Rules

This topic is monitored by Moritz Law Professor Terri L. Enns

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The Police at Polling Places?

Imagine security forces, armed with automatic weapons, stationed at polling places on election day. Imagine them screening voters the way they do airline passengers.

Intimidating? Make you think twice about casting a ballot? You bet.

Unfortunately, this image is not so fanciful. The Washington Post reports that federal officials are considering whether the threat of Madrid-type terrorism justifies, among other measures, stationing security forces at polling places on election day.

There are reasons, however, to fear excessive police protection of polling places. The Florida fiasco from 2000 includes allegations that state troopers set up check points near polling places to suppress turnout among minority voters. Even if there was no such intent to intimidate, there is no question that extra law enforcement presence around polling places had this effect upon some minority voters.

But what if, God forbid, a bomb does detonate at a crowded polling place on election day this year? Or, worse, several such places simultaneously? Would American attitudes toward going to the polls ever be as confident again? Would the chaos that ensued at the attacked locations affect the outcome of this year's election?

Fear of a terrorist threat on election day may suppress turnout — perhaps not as much as Fortress Voting Booth — but if Homeland Security issues a Code Orange Alert that polling places in Philadelphia are at special risk of an attack, we can be sure that some voters who might otherwise have shown up at the polls will stay home instead. And since Pennsylvania is presently a toss-up state, it is not inconceivable that the management of the terrorist threat might affect the results of the election.

Consequently, as a nation, we need to think more systematically than we have so far about how we protect the electoral process from both terrorism and the fear of terrorism — as well as the deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement officials among many members of our democracy. In the long run, Americans may do more voting at home through the Internet or other technologies. In the short run, it may be necessary to make absentee ballots available to voters who fear appearing in person at their designated polling places.

[Posted: July 9, 2004]