Elections officials gear up for possible trouble at polls

Some worry independent ‘poll-watchers’ will try to intimidate voters.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OCT. 29, 2016

Election officials in southwest Ohio and across the country are bolstering security plans and training poll workers on how to respond in case this year’s red-hot political rhetoric boils over and partisans attempt to intimidate voters or cause other trouble at the polls.

“That is real and something that election officials across the country are working into their contingency plans as we speak,” said Kay Stimson, communications director for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Presidential elections are always contentious. But this year’s matchup between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton features a major party candidate — Trump — who won’t commit to accepting the results of the vote if he loses and has loudly and repeatedly claimed the election is rigged against him.

“You get concerned when anyone tries to undermine the process like that,” said Llyn McCoy, director of the Greene County Board of Elections. “Elections are not rigged.”

Butler County Board of Elections Deputy Director Jocelyn Bucaro is concerned about comments a Trump supporter from Fairfield made to the Boston Globe at Trump’s Cincinnati rally on Oct. 13.

Steve Webb, 61, told the Globe he would go to the polls and look for “Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American.”

“I’m going to go right up behind them,” the Globe quoted Webb as saying. “I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

He could not be reached for comment.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said what Webb is describing is illegal. People cannot follow voters into the polls to watch them.

“We welcome observers, but observers have to be registered observers and they have to follow the rules,” Husted said. “Nobody can take this issue into their own hands. You can’t just show up and try to inject yourself into the process.”

Voter intimidation is a crime, said Benjamin C. Glassman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

“Federal law contains protections for the rights of voters and provides that they can vote free from acts that intimidate or harass them,” he said. “We will be prepared to address any kind of allegation of voter intimidation in coordination with state and local authorities.”

Seeking accountability

Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have called for supporters to go to the polls to monitor other voters and look for signs of fraud — particularly in cities with large minority populations like Philadelphia and Chicago.

Pence told supporters in Mason on Oct. 17 that they haven’t done enough if they haven’t volunteered to demand “accountability at a polling place come Election Day.”

“Do all you can to respectfully participate in the process and ensure the outcome, an outcome we can all be proud of,” Pence said.

Elections officials fear these observers will intimidate voters or clash with opponents as voters attempt to cast ballots on Nov. 8. In a country with a long, violent history of voter intimidation, particularly against African-Americans, Trump’s calls for poll watchers is chilling to some.

“The problem is in the sort of hyper-partisan atmosphere that we have today there probably will be people who are reluctant to go through the gauntlet to go into the polling place,” said Richard Saphire, law professor emeritus at the University of Dayton. “If you end up seeing a lot of white folks going to African-American communities, congregating around the polling places, especially if they were rowdy, I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks thought twice before deciding to brave that and proceed into voting.”

Seth Unger, Ohio communications director for the Trump campaign, said the campaign “respects the electoral processes, systems and officials in place at state, county and local election offices and polling locations across Ohio.”

But, he said, “As candidates from both parties in Ohio have done in every recent presidential and statewide election, the Trump campaign will monitor voting activities to ensure that all laws are followed. Mr. Trump has said publicly that Ohio’s election chief is excellent, and that we may not have the problems that we have heard of in other states.”

Robby Mook, campaign manager for Clinton’s campaign, predicted record voter turnout when all absentee and Election Day votes are counted.

Voters will “see through Donald Trump’s shameful attempts to undermine an election weeks before it happens,” he said. “Campaigns should be hard-fought and elections hard-won, but what is fundamental about the American electoral system is that it is free, fair and open to the people.

“Participation in the system — and particularly voting — should be encouraged, not dismissed or undermined because a candidate is afraid he’s going to lose.”

The rules

It is common and legal for candidates and their supporters to talk to voters, hand out literature, demonstrate and observe — as long as they do not step within 100 feet of the polling location or attempt to intimidate, harass or impede voters.

If the voting line extends beyond that perimeter, no one can come within 10 feet of a voter in the line.

Except in an emergency, the only people who are to be inside the polls are election officials, voters, and registered observers appointed by the parties, candidates and issues committees. Twice a day when voter lists are posted, non-voters can come in to see who has cast a ballot, Bucaro said.

Those interviewed said they have no worries about problems with registered observers, who are trained and take an oath to follow the law. They are not allowed to interact with voters or poll workers, look at ballots, violate privacy, take pictures or video or handle elections materials. Ohio law specifically prohibits observers from challenging a voter’s right to vote. Observers who have concerns must leave the polling place to contact the board of elections or their own organizations.

Stimson said elections officials across the country are working to inform the public of the rules for behavior in and around polling places, how to handle voter registration challenges and how to respond to keep incidents from escalating. The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission is sharing best practices for handling poll observers and contingency planning, said Matt Masterson, who serves on the commission.

“I’ve seen more election officials take to social media in a very constructive way to educate the public as to how the elections process works,” he said.

‘You prepare for the worst’

Law enforcement officials have been asked to increase Election Day patrols of polling places in multiple counties, including Montgomery, Greene, Champaign, Clark, and Warren counties.

“It’s part of their job to make sure nothing violent happens out there,” said Bryan Sleeth, director of the Warren County Board of Elections. “We’re hoping their presence alone on Election Day will deter any type of negative activity at a polling place.”

McCoy said the extra law enforcement presence is helpful but officials must walk a “fine line.”

“We (also) don’t want the police department to be seen as an intimidating force,” she said.

Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director Pat McDonald said he’s adding more security than ever before. The county sheriff’s Impact Unit, which was used for handling crowds at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, will be available to go to polling places.

Hamilton and Warren County officials are programming polling locations into the 9-1-1 system to speed response time. Franklin County’s Board of Elections spokesman, Aaron Sellers, said he could not reveal the security plan that is in place.

“You prepare for the worst and hope that the things that are being talked about don’t happen,” Sellers said.

Some counties are giving poll workers extra training in diffusing confrontations and when to call for help. McCoy said this year she’ll assign some poll workers to check outside for trouble.

Some older poll workers are concerned about potential confrontations, but “they’re all still willing to work,” said Meredith Bodey, director of the Champaign County Board of Elections.

“It’s just so hard to tell what’s going to happen,” Bodey said. “Being so small out here in the middle of nowhere we’re really not expecting anything, but better to be safe than sorry.”

Few early voting problems

Those who are worried about problems at the polls can always vote early, either by mail or in person before Election Day.

“You can do that in the comfort of your own home,” said Rhine McLin, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

Mailed-in ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 7 to be counted. Boards also have extended hours, including weekend hours this and next weekend.

Those interviewed said they hadn’t had any problems with people coming to observe early voting, although Cuyahoga County did boot out two Trump supporters who falsely claimed they were official observers appointed by the campaign, McDonald said.

Montgomery County Board of Elections Director Jan Kelly said a local Trump campaign worker told her there is no organized effort to bring unofficial observers to the polls.

Local elections officials said they can’t recall a time when anyone brought a gun to a polling place. But Ohio is an open-carry state so nothing prohibits people from displaying guns on the public right-of-way at polling places.

“As long as they are just doing that there is really nothing we can do,” McCoy said.

Concealed weapons permit holders cannot bring guns into where they are prohibited, such as a school, but permit holders would be free to bring guns into a polling place if it is inside a private business that allows weapons, Kelly said.

Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said someone exercising “their Second Amendment rights” doesn’t mean they’re trying to intimidate voters. But, he said, “If we had a complaint, we would investigate.”

History of intimidation

There was a time in this country when trying to vote, or register to vote, could get you killed,

“Probably the most significant intimidation of black voters happened not at the polls, but away from the polls to prevent blacks from even coming to vote,” said Anthony Milburn, chairman of the humanities department at Central State University. “People (were) shot, killed, lynched.”

Laws, mostly in the Deep South, conspired to make sure that even if blacks registered to vote they wouldn’t cast ballots.

“They ranged from things like literacy tests, to poll taxes, to grandfather clauses where you would exempt whites from these kinds of tests and taxes,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was beaten and jailed multiple times in the 1960s when he fought for voting rights and civil rights. During a visit to Dayton on Friday Lewis talked about crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965 when he and other marchers were beaten by Alabama state troopers.

“I gave a little blood on the bridge in Selma, almost died for the right to vote,” said Lewis, who was in town to campaign for Clinton and lead an early voting march.

He said the poll watchers advocated by Trump could make people feel intimidated.

“That’s not good for America,” said Lewis. “People should be free to cast a vote without being harassed or intimidated.”

Today, critics say intimidation efforts take the form of groups challenging large numbers of voter registrations — which occurred in 2012 — and the voter ID laws and other voting restrictions passed in recent years by Republican-dominated legislators, who said they were needed to prevent voter fraud.

“I think this fraud myth is something that unfortunately Republicans have put out there for years,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “A lot of the voter restrictions (are) all about this bogeyman of voter fraud.”

Ohio Republican Party spokeswoman Brittany Warner said the state Republican Party has confidence in Ohio’s voting system.

Mixed opinions

At a Trump rally at the Clark County Fairgrounds Thursday, there were some mixed opinions over whether it's necessary to have observers watching over voters at the polls.

“I think it’s warranted,” said Scott Buroker of Urbana. “If (Hillary Clinton) can cheat, she would.”

But Margo Jackson of Toledo said she is concerned about voter intimidation. “You have to let people go do their thing,” she said of the voting process. “You shouldn’t watch them or intimidate them.”

Just who will be watching is as yet unclear. Both the state Democratic and Republican parties will have registered observers inside the polls, but Warner said state Republicans are not organizing to have anyone observe outside. The national GOP is bound by a consent agreement dating to a 1982 lawsuit limiting its ability to monitor voters in minority areas.

Pepper said the Ohio Democratic Party’s voter protection operation includes a hotline, volunteer lawyers observing at all 88 boards of election and 1,500 trained voter protection workers at polling places.

U.S. Attorney Glassman has assigned three of his deputy criminal chiefs to be election officers in Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati. He said this is typical and they will oversee complaints of election fraud and voting rights abuses. FBI agents will also be in each field office.

“Historically we’ve gotten very very few complaints,” Glassman said.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio also will have observers at the polls to answer voters’ questions and look for trouble, said Carrie Davis, executive director.

Voters who have problems of any kind should alert a poll worker or contact their local board, the secretary of state or the non-partisan Election Protection hotline, which is staffed by attorneys who work free of charge.

Ellis Jacobs, who works with the Election Protection group, said he is optimistic any voter intimidation efforts will fall short.

“I think it would backfire,” said Jacobs, who is senior attorney at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Dayton. “I don’t think Americans will allow themselves to be intimidated.”

At the Trump rally Thursday, Kenneth Moore of Springfield said the monitors will ensure legitimacy.

Moore, who is black, said this isn’t 1955 and black voters aren’t going to be chased away by someone observing to see whether the vote is fair.

In his own mind he doesn’t believe there is widespread voter fraud, “but I think it’s good to have monitors just to make sure,” he said. “I’m a Reagan guy: trust but verify.”

Staff Writers Michael Cooper and Matt Sanctis contributed to this story.

Rules for observers

State law allows registered observers to watch proceedings inside the polling place. The observers must be qualified electors in Ohio and are appointed by political parties, candidates and ballot issue committees. Observers take an oath are prohibited from:

  • Interfering with election officials or touching election materials.
  • Hindering or delaying voters.
  • Impeding, disrupting or interfering with the election.
  • Recording conversations
  • Taking pictures or videos
  • Election campaigning
  • Intimidating, harassing or attempting to influence voters.
  • Carrying a firearm.
  • Violating the secrecy of the ballot or voter privacy.

Source: Ohio Secretary of State

What to do if you have problems voting or feel intimidated at the polls

  • Inform an elections official inside the polling place.
  • Call 9-1-1 if you feel threatened.
  • Contact your county board of elections or secretary of state. 877-767-OHIO (6446)
  • Call the non-partisan Election Protection hotline. 866-OUR-Vote (866-687-8683)
  • Report the conduct to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Voting Section. 800-253-3931

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