The late congressman John Lewis once wrote: “The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool or instrument in a democratic society.” Voting is a fundamental right and it’s our job to work together to safeguard democracy, including right here in Minnesota.
Voting rights and democracy in this country have come hard-fought. At its inception, suffrage was only granted to specific subsets of the population. Throughout the subsequent centuries, the right to vote slowly extended to more and more citizens. Even in the face of sometimes insurmountable odds, obstacles and setbacks, true democracy with voting rights for all remained the ultimate goal.
Minnesota has already taken important steps on this matter with the passage of the “Democracy for All” bill this past session, which institutes new rules that protect voters and poll workers from intimidation and interference with voter registration, voting or election administration. However, during a time of heightened threats to our democratic process, we can, and must, do more. A study last year by the Anti-Defamation League and Bridging Divides Institute found that threats or harassment of election officials or poll workers span 21 states and make up about 34% of all incidents examined.
Ambiguity remains around physically securing the right to vote. Current Minnesota law prohibits electioneering within 100 feet of a polling site, the entrance to a building that houses a voting location or official absentee ballot drop box locations. This ensures that voters can cast their ballots in a “neutral zone” free from solicitation or attempted coercion. These are accepted and established restrictions on First Amendment rights to protect the sanctity of the vote. Yet, there are no similar laws restricting firearms in polling locations or ballot drop boxes.
Many might recall during the 2022 midterm elections, individuals armed with tactical gear and weapons “monitored” drop boxes in Arizona. A federal judge prohibited such behavior, stating: “It is paramount that we balance the rights of the defendant to engage in their constitutionally protected First Amendment activity with the interest in the plaintiffs and voters casting a vote free of harassment and intimidation.” Deterring voters through intimidation — implied or overt — is disenfranchisement. It is not a new tactic, but it is one we can prevent.
Throughout the history of this country, there have been government-imposed and government-sanctioned efforts to prevent individuals from exercising their constitutional right to vote. With divisive and violent political rhetoric on the rise, it is imperative that our polling places and all places where votes are cast be safe. It’s insufficient to leave it up to subjective interpretations of “intimidation,” which can yield inconsistent and unclear results. People should feel safe and secure accessing and participating in democracy. As Minnesotans go to the polls this November, it’s important to remember this deficiency. Hopefully, by 2024, policymakers will take steps to prohibit firearms in polling places.
Protecting the right to vote is an ongoing responsibility for those of us who want to safeguard democracy and participate in it. Abraham Lincoln famously said that “the ballot is stronger than the bullet.” It is time for Minnesota to live up to that ideal.
David Goldenberg is the Midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Maggiy Emery is executive director of Protect Minnesota.