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2020/2022

Pinellas Sheriff investigating report of armed voter intimidation at St. Pete early voting location

The individuals claimed to be working for the Trump campaign.

Two individuals suspected of voter intimidation were at the downtown St. Petersburg early voting location Sunday. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the complaint, according to WFTS.

The two individuals were reportedly wearing security uniforms and were armed at the 501 First Ave. N. voting location.

They told law enforcement they were with a private security company after a concerned staff member reported their presence at a tent set up at the location. The two claimed to be working for the President Donald Trump campaign, according to the report.

“These persons claimed or said that they were hired by the Trump campaign, again I’m not going to speculate to that. This was a licensed security company and they were licensed security officers,” Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus told WFTS.

The Trump campaign reportedly denied hiring the individuals, telling WFTS in a statement, “the campaign did not hire these individuals nor did the campaign direct them to go to the voting location.”

The individuals left the location Wednesday due to rainy weather, but told responding law enforcement they would return Thursday. The Supervisor of Elections did not immediately respond to a Florida Politics request for more information.

The Tampa Bay Times tweeted Sheriff Bob Gualtieri will post two deputies at five early voting locations beginning Thursday and through election day. As of 9:30 a.m., the Times reported no armed guards were seen at the downtown St. Pete site.

On Wednesday, Marcus told WFTS the actions were being taken seriously and that the office would “ensure that our voters feel safe going to vote and cast ballots in this election.” Sheriff’s deputies will be on location at the polling place Thursday, she said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman responded to the reports on Facebook Thursday.

“Voter intimidation will not be tolerated here. Please contact law enforcement if you witness any form of intimidation, including the presence of armed security guards. Voting in Pinellas County is safe. It always has been. We will ensure that remains the case,” Kriseman wrote.

Whether the Trump campaign hired the individuals or made a direct request for them to patrol the location or not, the Trump campaign has made calls for poll watchers, though those requests have not mentioned being armed.

Trump has called on volunteers to monitor polls for potential voter fraud. His campaign created training tapes for poll watchers, which are allowed under certain rules and commonly deployed by both parties, that encourage volunteers to be courteous and stick to their goal — to ensure election equipment is working properly and that votes are being properly cast.

The Trump campaign has vowed to recruit at least 50,000 volunteers to monitor polling places.

The group Let America Vote laid out a dozen examples of what it calls inappropriate campaigning and possible voter intimidation.

“These wannabe vote suppressors are the direct result of Donald Trump’s encouragement of voter intimidation at the first debate. When he told his supporters to go to polling places and ‘watch carefully’ they listened and took action. Whether they’re on the Trump campaign payroll or not, he’s to blame,” said Let America Vote president Tiffany Muller in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a long string of examples of anti-democratic behavior from Trump’s supporters.”

In some places, such as Minnesota, federal officials are monitoring reports of private security contractors advertising jobs for armed guards at polling places.

A poll worker in Memphis reportedly blocked people wearing Black Lives Matter shirts from casting a ballot. In Colorado, a trailer park landlord reportedly told tenants a vote for Joe Biden would lead to their rent doubling.

Other reports have already surfaced about emails threatening voters to “vote for Trump or else!” The emails, which appear to originate from the Proud Boys group, use voters names and addresses. Officials now believe the emails were spoofs orchestrated by Iran.

Early voting is open in Pinellas County and most Florida districts from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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