Police and civil-rights groups are preparing for what they fear could be widespread intimidation and confrontations when voters begin to cast ballots in person this coming week.
Groups like the NAACP expect “unlawful para-militia organizations” to try to scare people away from polling sites with their mere presence. The organization says it has recruited hundreds of volunteers to monitor the polls in a neighborhood-watch type operation, as well as lawyers and paralegals who can address legal issues on the spot.
Police such as those in Plantation are scheduling extra patrols in case problems develop. Miami-Dade police have added voting sites to their normal patrols, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office will activate a command center to monitor activity at the polls.
All are responding to the types of disturbances that have arisen in other states.
The Center for Public Integrity reported that supporters of President Trump in Virginia temporarily blocked an entrance to an early voting site, forcing officials to offer voters escorts to cast ballots. In Minnesota, a private security company is recruiting former military members to guard polling places, alarming election officials with the prospect of unofficial armed guards who could intimidate or harass voters. And Michigan, wanting to curb intimidation, won’t let people openly carry guns near polling sites.
With early voting about to start Monday in Florida, it’s too early to say which particular problems could surface. Marsha Ellison, a South Florida and statewide NAACP leader, said she fears far-right groups, including those supportive of President Donald Trump, would intimidate Black voters as they head to the polls in predominantly Black communities, all to keep them from voting. The NAACP has recruited hundreds of volunteers to keep an eye on the polls, with their roving patrols starting Monday.
“We are concerned about right-wing extremist groups that might seek to intimidate voters, so we have developed a plan throughout our national office, we want people to be able to vote safely,” she said.
Across the U.S, there have been calls by unlawful para-militia organizations “to send members to the polls — to make challenges to delay the ability to tabulate the vote,” said Mary B. McCord, the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
McCord said experts are concerned about volunteers who “purport to be patrolling the line or protecting [from] voter fraud and that could be done in an intimidating way to those in the line. We’re seeing in social media discussion among this by far-right unlawful militias.”
Although the issue of voter suppression is not new, Ellison worries this time is different “because of the president’s rhetoric that people feel emboldened, they have nothing to fear. We have to make sure we are ready and trained to have a plan in place to deal with it.”
Florida law prevents the police from being stationed at polling places — unless they are called to a disturbance, or they are themselves voting — because their presence could be viewed as intimidation. But police agencies in South Florida say they’ll respond when needed:
Miami-Dade Police will put early voting sites on their patrol routes to make sure “there is no obstruction of roadways, early voting site entrances and/or any other public safety concerns,” said Robert Rodriguez, the assistant deputy supervisor of elections.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office will assist the Supervisor of Elections to ensure voter safety by “initiating an incident action plan and activating our incident command center,” said agency spokesman Sgt. Donald Prichard. He likens the command-center approach to a regional-readiness plan for a hurricane: Staff will keep evaluating what’s happening at the polls in areas the agency routinely patrols, as well as being on standby to help at any other sites.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office similarly is working in tandem with election officials. The agency “will respond to any issues regarding voting problems identified by poll workers, election officials or citizens concerned for their safety,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera said, without citing specifics on the plan.
Howard Harrison, Plantation’s police chief, has pledged “additional patrols on duty and [we] will be prepared to respond to any situation that may be necessary.”
Ellison said it’s a quandary: Police can’t be there so they don’t intimidate anyone, yet if there is trouble, voters will need the police. The polls are the jurisdiction of the supervisor of elections, and police are called as needed. She said the solution is a direct line to authorities.
She said the NAACP has also recruited lawyers and paralegals to be on standby in legal issues need to be raised quickly.
“Anything can happen,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Joe Biden campaign didn’t comment, but a campaign spokesperson for Donald Trump said in an email that it’s not their side causing the problems. The spokesperson said the campaign is recruiting “tens of thousands of volunteer poll watchers to assist with getting out the vote and ensuring that all laws are applied equally.”
Just like in South Florida, nonprofit groups across the U.S. are undergoing "bystander training” for what to do if “people promote disarray,” said Rance Graham-Bailey, the election protection program manager for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national civil rights organization.
“Everyone is wrestling with the same questions: How do we prepare for what is obviously happening?” Graham-Bailey said. “It has been bubbling up for months.”
“Certainly as a country we are in a challenging time.”
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