Voter intimidation is real – if you see it, report it

mean letter
Letter anonymously sent to a voter in Reno. Photo provided by ACLU.

In a Facebook live video recorded Nov. 2, Karl Koenigs set up camp outside a polling site near the Las Vegas Strip to investigate rumors of a “Possible ILLEGAL ALIEN voting on secret site in Las Vegas.”

“Here are two ladies who are definitely not of the American culture,” he said during the 42-minute post. He was referring to women he didn’t know who were at a distance.

At this point in the video, which received 76,000 views and was shared about 1,800 times, someone watching wrote: “Exercise caution. If people are willing to cheat and lie with voting…just use caution, Karl.”

“Don’t worry, I believe in Second Amendment rights,” Koenigs responded. “I’m covered, I’m quick and I’m very efficient. I’m protected.”

Even before running for office, President Trump built his campaign on fear of Mexican immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In the last full week of this year’s campaign for the midterm elections, he ramped up his signature issue, inciting fear and outrage among his base about people from Central America traveling to the United States to seek asylum. “That’s an invasion,” Trump said, alleging, without proof, that the migrants included “dangerous criminals and gang members” and “unknown Middle Easterners.”

Koenigs, who says in his video he was in Las Vegas campaigning for Ryan Bundy’s fringe candidacy for governor, also cites the caravan, and an accompanying conspiracy theory that undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. to vote. He explains in the video that doing a “recon” of “illegal voting” was what brought him to the corner of Harmon Avenue and Polaris Avenue, a designated early voting site according to Clark County, in the hopes of proving his fears are grounded in reality.

They’re not.

“This fear is irrational,” says Holly Welborn with the ACLU of Nevada. “Undocumented people are not going to polling sites and voting. It’s a myth, to scare people.”

Voter intimidation, by contrast, is real.

When grabbing her voter guide from her mailbox last month, a Reno woman discovered it had already been opened. 

In a one-page, hand-written letter inside the guide, an anonymous person wrote: “To Maria, it is people like you who have broken United State’s federal law by entering this country illeagley, who have no right to vote. Let alone any rights what so ever” [sic].

“She is an American citizen,” Welborn says. “The inspiring thing is that she wasn’t terrified,” Welborn says, noting the woman was one of hundreds of thousands of Nevadans who voted early.

The ACLU helped its client file a complaint with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office. Welborn says she has heard of other similar cases in Reno.

Incidents like these, along with anti-immigrant sentiments, have caused some to worry that people of color, in particular Latino voters, could be profiled and targeted by groups seeking to intimidate them from voting. 

“That’s always a concern,” says Emily Zamora, executive director of Silver States Voices, which is organizing volunteers to poll watch. “We will have Spanish speakers in higher concentrated areas to make sure there is no language barrier. If someone tries to intimidate them, they will know they have the right to be there.”

The ACLU, Silver State Voices and Battle Born Progress are among many progressive organizations gathering volunteers to stand outside polling sites. Welborn says they are there to answer questions and assist with any problems that might arise.

The groups have also activated an election protection phone hotline — 866-OUR-VOTE — staffed with attorneys to make sure voters can cast votes without obstruction.

Zamora says they’ve traditionally rolled out election protection efforts in presidential elections. With high turnout in early voting this year, the groups decided to add volunteers for the midterm election. “We want to makes sure every voter has the ability to cast their vote without issue,” Zamora adds.

The ACLU describes voter intimidation, a felony offense, as:

  • Aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record, or other qualifications to vote, in a manner intended to interfere with the voters’ rights;
  • Falsely identifying yourself as an elections official;
  • Spreading false information about voter requirements, such as an ability to speak English or the need to present certain types of photo identification in states that don’t require them such as Nevada;
  • Displaying false or misleading signs about voter fraud and the criminal penalties related thereto;
  • Other forms of harassment, particularly harassment targeted toward non-English speakers and voters of color.

If people think they have been subjected to intimidation, they can file complaints with the Secretary of State’s office.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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