Local election officials brace for possible violence and threats
With worries over armed poll “monitors,” voter intimidation and risks to staff, some are coordinating with law enforcement or conducting special training ahead of Election Day.
In August, 65 local election clerks in Dane County, Wisconsin watched a Zoom discussion on their computers, getting advice they likely never thought they’d need until a couple of years ago.
“Never attempt to de-escalate a potentially violent situation without calling for backup,” current and former local police officers warned the clerks, according to PowerPoint slides shown during the online presentation. “Know how to signal for help from other staff without escalating the crisis,” the slides said, adding: “There is no way to anticipate every possibility. That is why you must prepare and have OPTIONS!” In case a situation did escalate, the clerks were told to assess beforehand where they would run to escape and whether they knew how to secure the room.
That elections officials are considering how to deescalate volatile situations and contemplating where to flee if interactions go awry, underscores how concerned they are that the midterm elections in about two weeks could bring violence and attempts to intimidate voters.
Driving these worries are plans by far-right extremists—many still convinced by the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election—to “monitor” voters casting their ballots and to stop what they perceive to be the risk of fraud at the polls.
An example of what officials have been anticipating came last week when a man tried to drop off a ballot at the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Mesa, Arizona but, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office, was approached and followed by a group of people.
Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates and Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said in a joint statement that “two armed individuals dressed in tactical gear were onsite at a ballot drop box in Mesa” on Friday evening.
One element that raises the risk of confrontations, is that these so-called vote monitoring groups, “don't provide adequate training to ‘observers,’” Neal Kelley, former registrar of voters in Orange County, California, said in an interview.
Kelley is now part of a bipartisan group of elections and law enforcement officials called the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections. They’re advising elections officials to prepare for the possibility of threats by taking steps like providing de-escalation training to staff.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ criminal and social justice committee organized a Zoom discussion this week, during which speakers urged city leaders to be on guard for trouble.
“Over the last few years, we've seen an increase in efforts to interfere with our elections before, during and sadly after our election days,” said Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Quinton Lucas, who chairs the committee.
Extremist groups like the Three Percenters and Proud Boys have “dismantled some of their nationwide organizations” and are focusing their attention locally, Mary McCord, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said during the call organized by the Conference of Mayors.
McCord, who served as acting assistant attorney general for national security during the Obama administration, read from a social media post by one of the extremist groups.
“Dominate your county and prevent demonic outsiders from capturing it,” it said.
The FBI investigation into whether Trump improperly took classified information from the White House, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the upcoming elections “are all things that fuel extremist rhetoric, propaganda, recruiting, by extremist groups,” McCord cautioned.
With believers of the Big Lie convinced by unsupported claims of “mules” submitting batches of fraudulent ballots, “we're seeing surveillance and intimidation” around drop boxes, she said.
McCord said the incidents are not limited to Arizona. “We've seen people setting up cameras and filming voters as they drop off their ballots in these ballot drop boxes. We've seen people try taking down license plate numbers and photographs of voters trying to drop off their ballots. We've seen them also taking photos of election workers going into their workplaces when they are near ballot drop boxes. We've also seen intimidating signage,” she said.
“Some of these people who were watching the ballot drop boxes were wearing military type camouflage. Some armed,” McCord added.
Kelley recalled how in Orange County in 2020, “people got into the faces of voters” accusing them of not being eligible to vote “because of what language they spoke or how they looked.”
The de-escalation training that the clerks in Dane County took illustrates how elections officials around the country are trying to get ready for similar situations this year.
Kelley’s organization is urging officials to meet with local and federal law enforcement to plan, to conduct table-top training exercises and to turn to other resources the group has on its website, in order to help prepare for any incidents.
Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s former secretary of state, who is also part of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections effort, said in an interview that today’s atmosphere calls for new levels of coordination between law enforcement and elections officials.
“It’s critically needed,” she said. “The more election officials and law enforcement officials know each other, know who to call ahead of time, are familiar with normal processes, normal hours, the physical locations where things are expected to happen, the more it becomes easier to identify what's not normal, what is concerning.”
Scott McDonell, clerk of Dane County, Wisconsin, said he has heeded the advice and met with the police chiefs in his counties.
One of the things county officials should be doing, he said, is to make sure law enforcement knows what the laws around elections are. He created a document that was also distributed by the state’s sheriffs association that lists election laws, with the hope of avoiding a situation where “the deputy arrives and he doesn't know who to believe.”
For example, McDonell said he wanted law enforcement to know that the chief inspector has the authority to remove someone from the polls if they are disrupting voting.
McDonell said he was concerned after seeing a video of “vote monitors” in Michigan, in which they were told to bring cameras to polling places. So he is stressing to police that it’s illegal in Wisconsin to take photographs at the polls.
“You obviously don't want to capture people and how they voted. Also, there are people who are trying to maintain their anonymity. Maybe they're victims of domestic violence,” he said.
McCord also stressed during the mayors’ Zoom call that it’s important for elections officials to make sure law enforcement agencies understand the intricacies of election laws.
She stressed that a federal prohibition on intimidating voters is not limited to areas outside polling places. “Voter intimidation is unlawful everywhere,” she said.
Armed people patrolling polling areas “can be very intimidating,” she added, noting that elections officials, working with law enforcement, should be coming up with plans to prevent actions that could intimidate voters. “You can direct armed groups to move away or put their weapons away, to back away from voters,” she said.
Laws vary around the country about whether law enforcement is allowed at polls. “It's something that mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, election workers should be talking about,” McCord said.
“It's very important that police chiefs make sure that their personnel are well informed and know exactly what to do,” Charles Ramsey, who previously served as police chief in Washington, D.C. and police commissioner in Philadelphia, added during the call with mayors.
For instance, officers should be aware of where ballot boxes are located in areas they patrol.
Ramsay also said that 911 dispatchers should be told that incidents at polling places should not be considered low-priority calls. “It doesn't have to be lights and sirens but it should be something where an officer is dispatched without any unnecessary delay,” he said.
McDonell said that in urban parts of his county, police will be on hand but in plain clothes so as to not intimidate voters. In rural areas of his county, deputies will swing by polling places to let them know they are around and that they will be back to check in.
De-escalation training can be especially important for rural clerks. “It can be like 20 minutes before [law enforcement] responds to them. They've had some pretty upset voters,” McDonell said.
Heading into the elections, McDonell took some comfort in that there were no incidents in the county during the August primaries.
Still, he recalled a man who came to the county’s elections office in April “dressed head to toe in camo. He had turned out to be one of these Sovereign Citizens,” another extremist group. The man “was shaking doors and trying to get into spaces.”
Since then, he said the county has installed security cameras and put up a plexiglass wall to keep people from being able to get around the front counter in the elections office.
The growing concerns about violence, threats and harassment of election workers has been too much for some. “I worry about people leaving the ranks,” McDonell said.
A poll by the Brennan Center for Justice of nearly 600 local elections officials in January and February found that more than half are concerned about the safety of other election workers. Nearly one in three said they knew of at least one election worker who quit their job at least in part because of safety concerns, increased threats, or intimidation.
McCord noted that in Pennsylvania alone the chief election official in 50 out of 67 counties has left because of threats or harassment against them and their families.
McDonell, though, said he’s not thinking about quitting. “I feel like this job is really important right now. And I get a lot of support here in Dane County,” he said. “I do think it would be hard to get someone to want to jump in and do what we’re doing.”
Boockvar pointed out that election workers are members of the communities where they serve.
“Election officials are our friends or neighbors. They are coaching our kids on the soccer team field. They're sitting next to us in church and they work harder than almost anybody I know,” she said. “The fact that we're having this conversation at all is devastating.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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