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Election Day 2020: US officials brace for unrest as tensions flare

Demonstrators break windows and enter a coffee shop during a protest in Portland, Oregon. Picture: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Demonstrators break windows and enter a coffee shop during a protest in Portland, Oregon. Picture: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Published Nov 3, 2020

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By Mark Berman, Abigail Hauslohner and Tom Hamburger

Washington - With tensions flaring across the country, officials, experts and activists have been gearing up for an array of possibilities about what they might face, including potential voter intimidation, clashes around the polls or spiraling unrest.

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"It's the unknown that creates all the anxiety for us," Tampa, Florida, Police Chief Brian Dugan said in an interview Monday. "How do you know what's going to happen?"

There has been widespread emphasis on preparation for Tuesday's election and the possible fallout, with businesses in cities from New York to Los Angeles boarding up as officials brace for the potential of significant civil unrest. Police departments cancelled time off and are deploying more officers than usual.

Tens of millions of people already have cast their ballots during an early-voting process marked by some cases of potential intimidation and unnerving behaviour in and outside of polling places, voters and officials say.

The episodes ranged from people honking their horns or shouting near voting sites to the more ominous incident Friday in Texas involving a caravan of President Donald Trump's supporters who used their vehicles to surround a bus carrying Democratic nominee Joe Biden's supporters. The FBI is investigating, while Trump has praised the drivers and said "these patriots did nothing wrong."

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Loud activity around polling sites, meanwhile, is not an inherent violation of the law, but actions can cross into illegal voter intimidation if they aim to block people from voting or change how they vote.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Monday that a voting irregularities hotline has gotten sporadic calls reporting intimidation, including complaints about "people lurking at polling sites" in an intimidating manner in various parts of Florida.

In Broward County, Fla., elections officials have gotten some calls about people vocally expressing their opinions, but they were minor disturbances rather than anything criminal, according to Steve Vanacore, spokesman for the county's supervisor of elections office. Therese Barbera, spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in Florida, said officials received calls about loud activity around polls, all of which were resolved peacefully and without arrests.

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Other cases of pro-Trump caravans near voting sites or on roadways have drawn attention on social media and in news reports. On Monday, they also apparently prompted a joint statement issued by eight attorneys general in states that included the battlegrounds of Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

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"Voter intimidation is illegal in every state - whether it happens in person or from a car," the officials said.

There is also anxiety about possible law enforcement bias on Election Day, fueled by incidents of officers expressing support for Trump in New York and Miami as well as sightings of police or fire vehicles participating in, or seeming to escort, pro-Trump caravans in at least three states.

"This isn't a sport," said Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, which works with police departments across the country to provide training and improve practices. Law enforcement officers who show bias during the voting process could violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits inappropriate conduct by federal officials during elections and extends to local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funds, he said.

"This is not entertainment," Burch said. "This is serious stuff."

Police and other authorities across the country have tried to reassure voters that they will be apolitical and help protect people during a tense time.

"People in general have very high anxiety as it relates to the upcoming election," David Brown, the Chicago police superintendent, said during a briefing Friday.

Inside federal law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons and the US Marshals Service, agents have been told to be ready if called to assist in a range of duties, such as guarding federal property or responding to public unrest. Those instructions are part of contingency plans Justice Department officials developed amid months of protests across the country this year that sometimes devolved into violence.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division announced Monday that it would send personnel to 44 jurisdictions in 18 states to monitor for compliance with federal voting rights laws, something it regularly does during elections, while FBI officials will monitor issues from the bureau's headquarters as well as field offices across the country.

In Minneapolis, a city still on edge since the civil unrest this summer that began with George Floyd's death on Memorial Day, storefronts not already boarded up were getting covered in fresh plywood Monday as the city braced for the possibility of new election-focused protests. Some businesses hired additional private security, citing a lack of confidence in the city's beleaguered police force, which has struggled to respond to a rise in violent crime and a surge in officer departures.

Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo issued a joint video last week acknowledging widespread fears of civil unrest related to the election, and Arradondo said the reduced number of officers "will not impede our ability to respond where necessary."

Philadelphia leaders said Monday that they are ready to stamp out any foul play. Danielle Outlaw, the police commissioner, said officers and a supervisor would be at every polling station.

"If you're planning to come to Philadelphia to steal votes, I have something for you: a jail cell," Larry Krasner, the Democratic district attorney, said at a news conference Monday.

Richard Barron, who supervises elections for Fulton County, Ga., said at least one officer will be present at each of its 255 precincts, an extra precaution taken to reassure voters.

"We're just trying to be proactive," Barron said. Officers are usually only in places that request it, but, Barron said, this year "we are doing that at every location because, yes, we do have some concerns."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, had cited potential intimidation when banning openly carried guns at polling places on Election Day, an order that was blocked by a judge after gun rights groups challenged it.

The Michigan Supreme Court did not issue a decision Monday, leaving the order from the lower court standing on the eve of the election. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, said in a statement that she was disappointed but noted that voter intimidation remained illegal.

Law enforcement officials and voter rights groups have been worried about the potential for violence at the polls in deeply polarized Michigan, but they have not been united in how to deal with it. Some Michigan police officials, along with several county sheriffs, had expressed doubts about the state-ordered ban, suggesting that they would not enforce it.

As of Monday night, there were few signs of violence or intimidation in the state, and Nessel said there was no plan to direct police to polling sites.

Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University's law school, said Monday that one concern she has is what might happen if armed, far-right groups try to monitor polling sites.

But leaders of such groups denied that they had plans to act, arguing instead that it is left-wing groups that would emerge as the issue. Matt Marshall, founder and former leader of a Washington state faction of the 3 Percenters movement, said he expects left-wing demonstrators to take to the streets if Trump wins: "I think it's going to get really ugly."

He said he does not think armed groups will show up at the polls.

"The whole thought of people with guns intimidating people at polling places - I find it absolutely ridiculous, both that it would be a concern and that people would actually do it," Marshall said. "I think everybody generally understands that if people take up firearms and try to do something on their own, it's not going to help anything."

Ammon Bundy, who heads a national militia-style network and is best known for leading the 2016 armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest what he sees as federal intrusion into state matters, said his group has no plans for Election Day but that it is ready to take action "in defense of people's rights," if needed. He said he fears there will be confrontations after the election regardless of the outcome.

"I believe that no matter whether Trump wins or loses, there will be problems," Bundy said.

Many experts and officials said their area of greatest concern is about what happens after the polls close, particularly if the election is close or contested.

"I don't expect a lot of problems" on Election Day, said Dugan, the Tampa police chief. "It'll be after the election. Let's hope it's a landslide either way. If it's close, that's when tensions may get high. It just all depends on the outcome of the election."

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