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Voter intimidation is illegal. If you see it happen today, this is what to do

There are laws in place to protect you from people who intimidate others while voting at the polls.

Election voter information guide

If you spot voter intimidation, report it.

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.

Voter intimidation at the polls is against federal law. Nevertheless, it's been increasingly common this year leading up to Election Day -- one election hotline has received more than 100,000 calls reporting voter intimidation since July, according to USA Today. When you go to the polls, make sure you know your voting rights, including the right not to be harassed about which candidate you've cast your ballot for, or if you're allowed to vote at all. These illegal practices can lead to jail time and fines, and should be reported.

Voter intimidation has been going on for decades, and historically targets Black communities and other communities of color in an illegal effort to deter them from exercising their constitutional right to vote

Read more: FBI investigating voter suppression robocalls on Election Day

The crime of voter intimidation became a topic of discussion in September during the first presidential debate when President Donald Trump told his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully," a statement that stirred concern among civil rights and voting rights advocates. 

In September, Trump also urged supporters to vote twice, an act that is against the law. Double voting is also a criminal offense punishable by incarceration and/or fines.

There is a notable difference between a legitimate poll watcher and someone who breaks laws protecting voters from harassment, including the right to vote in private. We'll take you through exactly what voter intimidation is and isn't -- and what to do if you see it.

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Don't let someone deter you from voting. 

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What is voter intimidation?

Voter intimidation is when someone attempts to sway a voter's choice or prevent them from voting by creating a hostile verbal or physical environment. For example, questioning your voter rights by asking personal questions about your criminal record or citizenship is illegal. 

Spreading false information about voter requirements, like the ability to speak English, is also considered voter intimidation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union says (PDF). You can receive a ballot and election materials in your native language, according to the US Election Assistance Commission, as protected by the Language Minority Provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

What are the laws against voter intimidation?

Along with voter fraud like double voting and campaign finance crime, voter intimidation is a federal crime. It applies to anyone who "intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote." If the law is violated, the perpetrator could be found guilty and sentenced up to one year in prison, up to a $1,000 fine, or both.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also prohibit voter intimidation.

How can I report voter intimidation?

If you or someone else is being harassed or threatened at the polls, let a poll worker know. Then call and report it to the Election Protection Hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE) or the US Department of Justice voting rights hotline (1-800-253-3931). You should also contact your state board of elections. In some cases, a poll worker may call local authorities to remove the individual in question.

Is poll watching considered voter intimidation?

Poll watching, also called poll challenging, is legal. A poll watcher is a partisan individual whose purpose is to observe a polling place in support of making sure their party has a fair chance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

For example, a poll watcher may closely monitor the election administration and keep track of voter turnout for their parties. They shouldn't, however, try to persuade someone to vote one way or another.

There are necessary qualifications to become a poll watcher, but they vary by state. Legitimate poll watchers are not individuals who simply decide to show up at a polling place. Some states may require poll watchers to be registered voters or a US citizen.

For more voting information, here's how to find your polling place on Election Day, who has the right to vote and who doesn't, and how to track your election ballot online after you vote.