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US midterms: From gerrymandering to voter intimidation

November 8, 2022

The US in 2022 is more polarized than ever. A wide chasm separates the left from the right, and partisan politics affects the voting process in a number of ways ― some of them illegal.

Voters standing at polling booths
Many voters said they were concerned about voter intimidation and threats of violenceImage: Jim Vondruska/AFP/Getty Images

The mood in the US was heated as Americans headed to the polls to vote in Tuesday's midterm elections.

Progressives and many moderates have been angry and concerned about a crackdown on personal rights since the US Supreme Court's June repeal of Roe v. Wade, which ended the constitutional right to abortion.

Outrage among Republican backers of former President Donald Trump has simmered since he lost the 2020 presidential election ― a fact his supporters still refuse to accept.

"We know the 2020 election was a lie," one Trump supporter told DW at a rally for Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, herself an election denier.

This increasingly fractured political landscape has shaped this year's midterms in a number of important ways.

Gerrymandering: Redrawing voting districts to suit your needs

Partisan attempts to influence election results began before ballots had even been cast ― by gerrymandering, or changing the outline of voting districts to benefit one party over the other. In Alabama, for example, the Republican state legislature redrew district lines in a way that put most of the state's Black voters in a single district.

Despite Black citizens making up more than a quarter of the population in Alabama, their vote would effectively only matter for one of the state's seven House of Representative seats. Traditionally, Black Americans tend to vote Democratic.

Similar gerrymandering was conducted by Republican state legislatures and waved through by courts with a majority of Republican-appointed judges in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Florida.

A white man and woman standing next to a pick-up truck and cameras on tripods pointed at a ballot drop box in Mesa, Arizona
Armed poll watchers have been ordered to stay further away from ballot drop boxes Image: Michael Chow/The Republic/picture alliance

Intimidation at polling stations

"The intensity around election administration has not subsided since 2020," Jonathan Diaz, senior legal counsel for voting rights at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told CNN.

This "intensity" included people with guns standing near early voting ballot drop boxes, supposedly to prevent the voter fraud they imagine lead to the "false results" of the last election.

US media also reported that a number of "poll observers," many of them recruited by Republican politicians or activists, were engaging in intimidation tactics like following election officials around, photographing their license plates or video-taping voters.

In Arizona, a judge issued a restraining order against Clean Elections USA, a group that subscribes to Trump's claims of the "stolen election." Armed members of the organization, wearing masks and tactical gear, had taken up positions next to a polling box — a frightening sight that some fear could prevent people from exercising their legal right to vote.

"Uninformed vigilantes outside Maricopa County's drop boxes are not increasing election integrity. Instead, they are leading to voter intimidation complaints," said Bill Gates and Stephen Richer, election officials in Arizona's Maricopa County, where the incident took place.

43% of voters worried about violence at the polls

Voter intimidation occurred in the 2020 election, and Arizona is not the only state where it was happening this election cycle. North Carolina was tracking several instances, according to news agency Reuters.

In Michigan, The Detroit Free Press reported that a group calling itself the America Project had trained volunteers to set up cameras to capture license plates, as well as telling those monitoring ballot drop boxes to carry weapons in case they encounter criminals attempting to stuff them with fraudulent ballots.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released at the end of October, 43% of registered voters said they were concerned about threats of violence or voter intimidation while voting in person. Supporters of the two big parties are not equally worried, however: 51% of Democrats said they were concerned, but only 38% of Republicans shared that concern.

A hand holding up a red hat with the words 'Trump forever'
Several hundred Republican election deniers are running for office this year and could control the 2024 presidential voteImage: Drew Angerer/AFP/Getty Images

Vote counting as a high-security event

Experts also worry that the intimidation of poll workers who will count the votes may begin once polling stations have closed. In 2020, angry mobs took up residence outside state buildings and chanted "stop the count" in places where they believed Trump was being cheated out of a win.

Lisa Deeley, chairwoman of the Philadelphia Board of Elections, faced such a protest in front of Philadelphia's Convention Hall in Pennsylvania in 2020, and refused to stop the count despite personal threats against her.

She told DW in October that she was seeing similar developments now, saying they "really [cut] right into the heart of the foundation of this country."

The strong rift between the left and the right and the anger that has been brewing, officials fear, could lead to protests like those of 2020. That's why cities like Philadelphia have stepped up security at vote counting centers. 

Edited by: Jon Shelton

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Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker