As we head into the most important election in modern history, one thing is clear: We must guarantee that every single voice is heard. And for the polls to be safe for all, we need polling places that are free from both voter intimidation and police.
This will be my first time voting in a presidential election in Lancaster County. I’m excited to join the thousands of new voters — new citizens, new 18-year-olds and new state residents — at the polls Nov. 3.
When I first came to Lancaster from Puerto Rico a couple of years ago, I realized how important my vote could be, and registered in time to vote in the midterm elections in 2018. This year, all of our votes are even more important, as we vote in a presidential election.
As a CASA organizer and first-time voter, I know firsthand the challenges that first-time voters face when attempting to exercise their right to vote, especially if English is not their first language.
At CASA, our mission is to create a more just society by building power and improving the quality of life in working-class and immigrant communities. One critical part of accomplishing that mission is ensuring that working-class and immigrant citizens are able to fully participate in elections and exercise their right to vote, and one’s native language should never be a barrier to participation.
Now more than ever, it is important that the Lancaster County Board of Elections and county commissioners ensure that there will be no voter intimidation at the polls on Nov. 3. This means recruiting experienced poll workers and authorized poll watchers and equipping voters with knowledge about their voting rights.
According to guidance released by the Pennsylvania Department of State, authorized election personnel may not photograph or videotape voters, disseminate false election information, block the entrance to a polling location, directly speak to or question voters or ask voters for documentation.
It is critical that Lancaster County residents know their rights, and it is essential that authorized staff are prepared to oppose these forms of intimidation.
But combating voter intimidation also means relying on those authorized positions — and not police — to increase access to the polls. For many members of our communities, police presence is itself intimidating. At CASA, we hear all too often from families and members of the immigrant communities about their negative interactions with police.
The recent fatal shooting of Ricardo Muñoz by Lancaster police, and the protests that followed, underscore the depth of this divide. Muñoz’s death exacerbated an already tense relationship between Black and Latino communities and police.
With this in mind, it is important to understand that police at polling places are not a neutral entity. Their presence may increase exposure of already vulnerable communities to surveillance.
When I head to the polls this election season, whether early in-person via a mail-in ballot or on Election Day, I want to be able to proceed with the peace of mind that all voters deserve. There is nothing more American — more Pennsylvanian — than being able to use your vote and your voice to bring about change.
Voters should have the right to raise their voices without fear of intimidation. Over the next two or so weeks until Nov. 3, it is imperative that county elections officials use the resources and staff at their disposal to guarantee that everyone — regardless of race, income, neighborhood or any other identity — has a safe opportunity to cast their ballots in the upcoming general election.
Lourdes Garcia is an organizer for CASA, a Latino and immigrant advocacy organization in Lancaster. (It should not be confused with CASA of Lancaster County, which matches children in the foster system with court-appointed special advocates.)