News Politics

A New Form of Voter Intimidation: Anti-Choice Harassment at the Polls

Robin Marty

It may be time for a FACE Act for polling locations.

All pundits and politicos are agreeing that this year’s presidential race — and many other federal races as well—will be extremely tight. Who wins the White House on Tuesday will largely rely on get out the vote efforts by both parties in a number of battle ground states that will ultimately decide the election.

One of these states is Ohio. Polling locally and nationally has President Barack Obama leading but still within the margin of error over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and early voting could become the key to who will be the victor in the state, as well as the nation.

No wonder anti-choice activists are fighting so hard to supress the vote.

For anyone who has ever tried to access a clinic that provides abortion services (and, more often these days, even clinics that only provide birth control) knows, anti-choice zealots make actually entering a clinic without interference more difficult every day. They pray in the sidewalks in front of the entrances. They display graphic signs and shout and offer “counseling” to both patients and just passersby. They take up parking spaces, block the signs of buildings with their vehicles, and they even film people coming and going in and out of the clinics. All of these tactics, which they cling to as freedom of speech, is thinly veiled harassment and intimidation in an effort stop a woman from enacting her legal right to choose.

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Another legal right they appear to be limited fans of? The right for voters to cast an unimpeded vote for a candidate they don’t support.

The last few election cycles have seen an upswing of voter intimidation and suppression efforts in mostly minority or heavily Democratic districts. Problems range from a lack of voting machines to unofficial poll “challengers” who seem intent on ensuring voters prove their right to vote, to inadequate supplies of ballots, and more. Every year there is another trick that slows down the ability to cast a vote in largely poor and minority neighborhoods.

Now, Columbus, Ohio is the birthplace of a combination attack—abortion clinic access blocking techniques being used outside an early voting polling location. The site of 1700 Morse Avenue is the sole early voting location for residents of Franklin County. In 2008, the county, which is the largest in the state, was a major win for Obama, who beat Republican Senator John McCain by over 100,000 votes in the district.

Early voting will continue until election day at this polling location, but the act of voting there will be more difficult than in previous years thanks to anti-choice activists who have decided to camp out just outside of the “no politics” buffer zone set up around the site. Leading the charge is Richard Justman, who, according to an article at abortion opponent and Republican activist Jill Stanek’s website, was “more and more disturbed to see only Democrats show up in force after a Columbus, Ohio, Early Voting Center opened for business near his home on October 2.”

According to Stanek, Justman has parked his van in the lot to take up multiple parking spots, limiting the number of available spots for other election workers at the site. Justman moved his van in at 1 a.m and to be sure he doesn’t lose his advantage, he’s staying with it around the clock, asking others to sit with it while he showers or uses a public restroom so his vehicle can’t be towed.

Justman isn’t just taking up space that could be used by election officials, but voters as well. Franklin County Board of Elections spokesman Ben Piscitelli asked Justman to move his vehicles so that voters who wished to cast ballot early—the sole reason for the site—could access the parking spaces. Piscitelli told The Daily Caller:

“It was all right for this gentleman and his vehicle to be there; we just asked if he would please move back a couple of rows to where some similar vehicles were parked so that voters would have more parking spaces closer to the voting center.We didn’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it was.”

But Justman isn’t just about physically obstructing access to the polling place as much as is legally allowed. Like with clinic access protesting, Justman is also bringing with him the graphic anti-choice blown up bloody “fetus” posters the extremists in the movement have become so fond of, thanks to his eager support from “Created Equal” leader Mark Harrington. If you wish to cast a vote, you have to look at their photos, first. Election officials say that the large sandwich boards are blocking visability in the right of way leading up to the polling place. Justman’s lawyer has defended it as Justman’s religious freedom and freedom of speech being restricted by an unjust government, and the signs remained.

Justman couches his protest as a desire to ensure that voters remember social issues like abortion and gay marriage when they cast their ballots. His gory photos in the right of way make it clear where he stands on the right to choose, and his less publicized adornments on his van, which tells voters to “Stop Sodom & Gay-Mora Marriage” or “Vote Character not Color” help clarify his other political leanings. Yet he is widely embraced in his crusade by anti-choice leaders, from Stanek to Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman and Christian Defense Coalition‘s Pat Mahoney, the latter two stopping by Justman’s vigil to lend their support.

Should a voter be obligated to pass graphic posters in order to practice his or her constitutional right to vote? Only if he or she lives in a heavily Democratic area, it seems. “By making this into a circus-like atmosphere, it discourages many people,” one Democratic activist told NBC News.

The intent at the polling places is no different than their actions at reproductive health clinics. Stay just inside the letter of the law. Try to convince those who arrive not to do what they came to do. Slow them down and make it as difficult as possible. Coerce with graphic images and unspoken intimidation. Pretend they are just concerned and simply providing information. Make the process as uncomfortable as possible.

Randall Terry ran a graphic anti-abortion ad in D.C. to test the waters, then the following cycle multiple candidates did the same. Anti-choice lawmakers proposed a few abortion restrictions to see if the public would fight them, and then the next session numerous states proposed identical laws. If this is allowed to count as acceptable at polling locations as long as it is outside the “no politics” zone, you can bet this will be at nearly every election site by 2016.

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