On Election Day, four voters in Allegheny County told the federal government that they felt intimidated at the poll.
Four more said they were worried about the ability of others to vote.
And one said “electronic sounds” near a playground were “telling him to vote Democrat.”
Flashback to November 2016: Voters were getting ready to head to the polls. The now-president was encouraging his supporters to watch the polls closely and suggested the election was rigged against him. There were nationwide concerns about voter fraud and voter intimidation.
The day before the election, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would send staff to monitor polling places in 67 jurisdictions, including Allegheny County. It also promoted a DOJ hotline and ways to send complaints about possible violations of voting laws via fax, email and an online form.
Federal officials emphasized that the department “regularly” monitored elections across the country and urged voters to report “complaints related to violence, threats of violence or intimidation at a polling place” first to local police, but later to the DOJ, according to a news release at the time.
So what complaints did local voters take to the feds?
Calls and complaints
After the election, The Incline filed multiple public records requests with the DOJ for information collected by staffers who were in the county and for messages sent by voters in Allegheny County.
DOJ staff gathered information on “whether voters are subject to different voting qualifications or procedures on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group” and if jurisdictions followed the law when assisting voters who speak another language, have a disability or can’t read or write, according to the November news release. Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at the time that the department would enforce the federal laws by filing litigation, submitting statements of interest in private lawsuits and helping others interpret the law.
The DOJ denied The Incline’s request for documentation made by staff during their Election Day visit to the county because those documents are related to “an ongoing law enforcement proceeding.”
The DOJ did, however, provide documentation of calls to the hotline and complaints to the department from Allegheny County on Election Day: 24 calls and seven internet messages, though it’s unclear if those were emails or submitted via online form.
Voters’ personal information was redacted in those documents to prevent “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to the department. One complaint made via phone from Plum Borough was so heavily redacted, the concern is unclear. In all of the documents, information was also redacted because it “contains pre-decisional, deliberative material.”
So while we know what the complaints were — and what local voters thought rose to the level of alerting the feds — the records don’t show who made them or the DOJ staff’s comments and recommendations. We also included geographical information when it was available.
You might have expected some of the complaints: Two voters said signs were too close to the polls, and another said there weren’t enough signs explaining how to enter the poll. Two voters were rejected for emergency absentee ballots. And two complained about being asked to show ID.
There were a few others, but a majority fell into three areas. Here are the highlights:
Intimidation and influence
In four complaints, voters used the hot-button word “intimidation.” Others didn’t say it outright, but had similar concerns about influence.
- A voter said “electronic sounds were emitting near the playground area telling him to vote Democrat.” (Allegheny County)
- A voter said the number of Republican signs were too close to the door and said Donald “Trump supporters are also imposing their views on voters coming in the door.” (Bethel Park; Ward 7, District 2)
- A voter felt intimidated by a uniformed officer standing very close to the voting booths and said it was “unnecessary,” but didn’t alert poll workers because they felt uncomfortable doing so. (Brentwood; Ward 0, District 6)
- A voter said they were “accosted” about voting and abortion while being forced to take campaign information. The candidate’s name on the campaign information was redacted. (McCandless; Ward 6; District 1)
- A voter felt intimidated because there were no curtains around the voting booths, and people were walking behind the voter, able to see their selections. (Oakland; Ward 4, District 5)
- A voter saw a group of men standing near the line to vote “talking about making sure that no one votes twice” and “seem to bee intimidating.” (O’Hara Township; Ward 2, District 1)
- A voter called to say they felt intimidated by a poll worker, but didn’t elaborate. (Pittsburgh)
- Two voters didn’t say it was intimidating, but also complained about the lack of voting booth privacy. (Both in Pittsburgh)
- A first-time voter said they asked for help but had to send the person away after he continued to talk about why he was supporting Trump. (Shaler)
- A voter said a woman was handing out Democratic pamphlets to voters in line, but then put on an ID tag that said she was a Democratic pollster and walked the line again asking for names. (Squirrel Hill; Ward 14, District 32)
Three voters called about problems with voting machines. Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs said in an Election Day press release that the county received several reports of “vote switching,” but there was no evidence that the machines were working incorrectly.
- A voter said voting machines switched to Democratic candidates if the voter attempted to vote for a Republican. (Allegheny County)
- A voter said two of the three machines had “touchscreen sensitivity in the wrong place.” When the voter picked one candidate, a different one was selected. So the voter had to touch below the selection box to select the candidate they wanted. The voter didn’t want to reveal who they voted for by telling poll workers. (O’Hara Township; Ward 3, District 2)
- A voter selected Trump, but Hillary Clinton’s name came up on the screen. The voter called the election judge over, but the problem couldn’t be fixed. The voter said they were concerned that they voted twice or their vote wouldn’t count. (Pittsburgh)
Concerns about other voters
Several voters also told the feds about troubles they had or things they noticed that didn’t impact them, but might have impacted other voters.
- A voter called for a friend who went to vote but was told by a poll worker that they needed a voting district number. The voter had the number on their voter card and didn’t see anyone turned away, but was concerned about people who didn’t know their number or have their card. (Morningside; Ward 10, District 8)
- A voter called to say they overheard a poll worker telling another voter to be careful, because if they voted for Trump, the machine would switch it to Clinton. The caller felt that was inappropriate. The voter was also concerned about the accessibility of the poll. (Munhall; Ward 0, District 1)
- A voter found a poll worker outside the poll who was putting people in two lines based on address, but it seemed that one line was all people from the same housing complex. The voter asked about it and was told “they had to devise a plan to account for the influx in voters from the housing projects because of the difference in candidate viewpoints on immigration.” The voter was concerned, but said it didn’t seem that voters were being turned away. (Whitehall; Ward 0, District 12)