Americans take pride in our honest, efficient elections. But we also have a history of political sabotage, directed at suppressing voter turnout and skewing election results. Usually targeted at minorities and in minority neighborhoods, voter suppression typically involves the intentional dissemination of false or misleading information about the voting process with the intent to prevent an eligible voter from casting a ballot. It often goes unaddressed by authorities and the perpetrators are virtually never caught.
Election saboteurs typically deal in mis-information, distributing literature in targeted neighborhoods or communities to publicize erroneous voting hours and/or polling places. Recently, some have made use of “robocalls,” and email chains using computers to contact hundreds of voters simultaneously with deceptive messages.
There is no clear federal law presently that contains criminal penalties against these deceptive practices. Even in a case where a person knowingly spreads false information about voting, and regardless of how many voters are deceived, the current federal law may not subject that person to criminal prosecution or civil injunction.
Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has laws involving voting rights and the administration of elections. Most states prohibit interference with the election process, but state statutes vary significantly in scope and application. For example, some state laws focus on interference with the physical act of voting by prohibiting “electioneering” in or around the polling place. Others address manipulation of or tampering with ballots, voting machines, or registration logs. Still others outlaw behavior meant to harass, intimidate, or bribe voters. While these laws are critical to ensuring the fair and effective administration of elections, some states have supplemented them with laws that address interference with the election process or dissemination of false information about voting procedures, candidates, or issues. States that have these more general laws are better equipped to curtail deceptive practices, online or otherwise, in the voting process.
Common Cause strongly supports federal legislation outlawing deceptive practices.
Deceptive Election Practices and Voter Intimidation: The Need for Voter Protection: This 2012 report examines the sufficiency of state and federal laws in protecting voters from deceptive election practices, with a focus on false information disseminated via the Internet, email and other new media. We also explored the power of state and federal election laws in combating deceptive online practices. This report reccomends a number of ways that existing laws could potentially protect voters from deceptive election practices and be updated to combat the growing problem of electronic deceptive election practices.
Deceptive Practices 2.0: This 2008 report described potential online dirty tricks to disseminate false or misleading information over the Internet, and state and federal laws that might be used to stop these worrying scams.