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Civil, voting rights groups caution police presence at Pinellas County polling places

Police presence could add to voter intimidation, groups say.

A group of civil rights and voting rights organizations is asking Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to reconsider his decision to post two deputies at early-voting locations in the county.

Gualtieri announced the move Thursday after reports surfaced about two armed security guards who posted themselves at the downtown St. Petersburg early-voting location Saturday claiming to be working for the Trump campaign.

Several groups worry Gualtieri’s decision to respond by positing deputies at polling places could only serve to exacerbate potential voter intimidation.

“Although we appreciate your stated commitment to combating voter intimidation, we are concerned that part of your response may amplify it. Many people, especially those belonging to historically marginalized communities, find the presence of police officers themselves at polling locations to be intimidating,” the group wrote in a letter to Gualtieri.

“Black and Brown Floridians may have an especially heightened sensitivity to police presence due to the unjust killings of people of color at the hands of law enforcement throughout 2020 and in recent years, and historically.”

The group’s include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Florida, All Voting is Local, Common Cause Florida, Fair Elections Center, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of Women Voters of Florida, NAACP Florida State Conference, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and FLCET (State Voices.)

The letter argued police presence may be appropriate in some situations but should not be employed across the board.

“Although such presence may be appropriate if militia groups or private security genuinely threaten the personal safety of voters, these potential risks should not, and do not, justify non-emergency policing of voters of color. In other words, law enforcement presence should not be automatic, and officers should not generally be stationed at the polls preemptively. They should be deployed only in response to genuine security issues requiring their involvement,” the group wrote.

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

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.

The Trump campaign denied hiring those individuals.

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 they call 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 Thursday.

“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.

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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