Some Early Voters in Stark County Alter Plans in Face of Racial Rhetoric
Instead of casting early ballots, some Stark County voters changed their plans over the weekend after a bullhorn filled the air around the Board of Elections with what they heard as racial harangues.
Some of the voters also saw it as intimidation. But there is a careful balance with the right to free speech.
A YouTube video shows a half dozen men standing near a pick up truck with a Trump sign bordering the highway in front of the Stark County Board of Elections on Saturday. They are surrounded by Trump flags, as a man using a bullhorn speaks over the traffic.
“Don’t vote for the party that killed Malcolm X. Don’t vote for the party that fought to stop black people from voting. Trump 2020!”
Nearby, the Pastors for a Peaceful Election watched and listened, as they handed out free coffee and food.
“Depending on who was going by, his message was changing, but it was all racial and antagonizing," said Bishop G.L. Evans, group volunteer and president of Stark County’s Black Caucus. He says one of the Trump supporters was clearly armed. He says he had an earlier run-in with the same group when he was trying to set up.
“I got surrounded by the Trump supporters. They put their big sign in front of our tent where people couldn’t get their coffee and donuts. I had to tell them we had permission. It was private property. So we had to get the sheriff involved and they came and made them move.”
Evans estimates that about 50 people walked out of the voting line after hearing the speech from the bullhorn.
“Some of them came over to where we were handing out food and said we’re just going to come back another time. We’re not going to be able to stand in line and hear all the rhetoric.”
But regardless of its impact on voters, that rhetoric is not legally considered voter intimidation, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national organization that works to protect voters’ rights.
Jon Greenbaum says that in this case, the group did not appear to be blocking people getting to the polling place. However, the group is looking into other reports from Stark County. Greenbaum, says intimidation is hard to define and, when in doubt, voters should call the election protection hotline about any issue.
“866-OUR VOTE and there’s someone who will be answering the call that can help them. And then they should also be alerting the election officials," Greenbaum said.
The atmosphere outside the Stark County Board of Elections has been intense throughout the final weekend of early voting as lines of voters stretched around the building and out the back parking lot.
On Saturday, pickups, motorcycles and a bus flying Trump flags circled the lot and parked nearby. Supporters stood in front of the board shouting their case for President Trump. On Sunday, supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden brought their own flags and stood on the same spot.
“I’ve been here today and it’s been really smooth," Bob Jackson of Louisville said. He waved to a van decked out with Trump signs driving past him, as he stood holding his Biden flag. “Pretty friendly. We wave. They wave.”
The elections board says it received complaints about flags, but nothing about objectionable speech. In fact, the real conflict Sunday seemed to be more voters vs. weather. Wind, rain and sleet pelted the faces of voters, and it took at least an hour for them to reach the front of the line.
Erica Tate of Canton stood with her niece bundled against the weather. “She just said, ‘No! We gotta go. I gotta see you vote!’”
Tate was casting her vote for Biden, saying President Trump has failed to deal with controversial police shootings of African-Americans.
“And to have someone sitting in the most powerful seat not address that, it was very hurtful.”
Farther behind Tate, Beverly and Jacob Hasting of Canton are voting for Trump.
“Individually Trump is not going to do anything to hurt me. Biden is going to tax me. He’s going after my guns.”
Today is the last day of early, in-person voting from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Boards of Election.
Tomorrow, Election Day, voters will go to their individual precincts from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm.
Mail-in ballots must be postmarked today or dropped in the drop box at your Board of Elections.