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ACLU Condemns Proposed Searches of Voters at Polling Booth

Posted: October 21, 2004|Category: Privacy Voting Rights

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today called on RI State Board of Elections Chair Roger Begin and Secretary of State Matt Brown to retract advice given yesterday by the U.S. Attorney’s office to election officials, encouraging them to consider conducting searches of voters’ belongings at polling places on election day.  In a letter faxed today to the two officials, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said the search recommendation was “extraordinarily troubling on a number of levels, and raises fundamental constitutional problems.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office advice was given in the context of anti-terrorism preparations for Election Day, even though officials acknowledged there was no evidence of a terrorist threat to Rhode Island. Excerpts from the ACLU’s letter follow:

“[The] government is suggesting that the personal belongings of individuals can be searched, without a warrant, probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion, solely because we live in an age where the ‘possibility’ of terrorism exists. The consequences of this reasoning are troubling to anyone who cares about the vitality of freedom in this country, for that logic could be used to justify random searches of any person at any time.

“The U.S. Attorney’s advice is even more disturbing because it has been made in the context of the exercise of one of the most fundamental rights we possess – the right to vote. It is appalling to see the government suggest that it can condition a person’s right to vote on the relinquishment of another constitutional right – the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“We would also note that the advice provides no objective standards as to when, how or on whom these searches would be conducted. It is perfectly clear to us that, due to manpower shortages and concerns about polling booth delays, any such searches would be performed in an arbitrary and almost-certainly discriminatory manner, based on such inappropriate criteria as the person’s appearance or age. 

“In light of the message that was provided at yesterday’s meeting of election officials – essentially authorizing them or police stationed at polling places to deny the right to vote to people who refuse to waive their Fourth Amendment rights – we urge that your offices immediately notify local Boards of Canvassers that, absent appropriate and particularized legal grounds to believe that an individual poses a threat to the safety of others, no searches of voters’ belongings shall be conducted.”

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