Polling officials preparing for potential unrest at US presidential election

Election officials hastily added training for poll workers on what to do if someone shows up armed. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The day after last week's presidential debate, the phones began to ring at the clerk's office in Ada county, Idaho, with a handful of residents worried about their safety at the polls.

Election officials hastily added training for poll workers on what to do if someone shows up armed.

In Orange county, California, law enforcement officers have been given pocket cards detailing the criminal codes on voting disruption, and election personnel have been trained to monitor police radio dispatches for reports of problems at the polls.

In a dozen battleground states, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, a civil rights group, has thousands of volunteers preparing to monitor voting lines, all to encourage anyone facing harassment to stay in line and to aggressively use social media to amplify their reports. Another group is taking the unusual step of training volunteers to physically block intimidators.

As early voting accelerates across the country, election experts say that President Donald Trump's recent statements, emboldened extremist groups and the coronavirus pandemic have combined to create a tension around casting ballots not seen since the Jim Crow era, when civil rights activists were forced to pry open polling places in the South.

"I would have my head in the sand if I didn't tell you there is not more amplified noise this year," said Orange county election registrar Neal Kelley. "This is the most intense I have seen in 17 years in this job."

Mr Trump has sought to enlist both the full force of the federal government and some state government allies into his efforts to sow discord around the election, falsely insisting that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, cheering on the construction of new barriers to voting and encouraging supporters to monitor polls, possibly with the threat of violence.

The President's confirmed case of coronavirus infection and his potential absence from the campaign trail inject even more uncertainty into the final days before the vote.

Mr Trump's own government has predicted potential unrest as the Nov 3 Election Day approaches.

"Open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure, such as campaign-associated mass gatherings, polling places and voter registration events, would be the most likely flash points for potential violence," according to an annual threat assessment from the Department of Homeland Security issued on Tuesday (Oct 6).

Protecting voters from harassment at the polls can be complicated by local and federal laws as well as issues of free speech: One person's voluble enthusiasm is another's intimidation. Each state also has its own rules about how close to polling stations protesters and campaign volunteers may stand, but those buffer zones are proving to be less protective than in the past, as social distancing has lengthened voting lines.

And other methods to defending polling sites from disruption could be trickier to carry out, especially during a pandemic.

Election officials cannot crowd voters indoors, even to get them away from protesters, when that could expose them to coronavirus infection. They could fortify polling sites with law enforcement officials, but that carries its own risk: In some locations, especially those frequented by minority voters, police officers may also be viewed as intimidating.

Those challenges came into focus last month when a group of Trump supporters chanting "four more years" disrupted voters at a polling location in Fairfax, Virginia, forcing officials at the site to allow the group of voters to wait inside.

But that presented its own problems. Mr Gary Scott, the general registrar of Fairfax county, said the pandemic had further complicated their planning for what he described as the "most contentious" election he had worked in more than 20 years.

After the incident in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, Mr Scott said Fairfax county decided it would direct demonstrators to stay 46m away from the facility, even farther than the 12m buffer required under state law. But that has not quelled concerns that voters could be in proximity to potential aggressors, particularly as they are directed to social distance while in line to vote.

"People are out actively stirring the pot," Mr Scott said. "There's a lot of disinformation being disseminated all across the spectrum, and that creates a level of anxiety on voters."

He said his team was meeting police before the election to consider new security protocols. Officials had private security on hand at the polling place where Trump supporters caused a disruption even before that episode. Such efforts are proliferating around the country, as officials are taking the threat seriously.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have begun exercises with local law enforcement groups and election officials around the nation. After participating in one tabletop exercise, Mr David Maeda, a top election official for the Minnesota Secretary of State's office, called his county administrators to ensure they were in contact with their sheriffs and were marking the 30m buffer around polling stations. Mr Maeda is even recommending poll workers attend a roll call at the local police station to make clear the needs of their polling stations.

Mr Steve Descano, Fairfax county's prosecutor, has created a team in his office that will soon be trained on the tactics of militia groups. He said the chances of another incident like the one at the polling station in Fairfax were more likely after Mr Trump called for his supporters to independently monitor polling places during his debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

"I told my wife we're going to have more problems," Mr Descano said. "I'm a realist. I always hoped we wouldn't have problems, but I have to plan on it."

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