Jen Fifield Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News Talk #arizona
With months of political protests and public discord leading up to Election Day, there’s a concern both locally and nationally about tension boiling over as people go to the polls to cast their ballots, and as results come in.
Election and law enforcement officials in Maricopa County say their goal for Tuesday is one and the same: Ensure that people can vote easily, safely and without intimidation.
They hope this means a complete lack of police presence at the polls.
The Maricopa County Elections Department has a plan to address all potential voter conflict and intimidation issues with its own election staff, who have been trained to enforce the state’s election law — such as the laws prohibiting firearms and electioneering within 75 feet of a polling place — and to deescalate heated situations, said Scott Jarrett, director of election day and emergency voting at the elections department.
If that doesn’t work, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies in plain clothes will be on standby to come help, and local police will be ready to respond to emergencies if they happen.
Jarrett said the intent is to keep voters feeling safe, while also planning for any kind of situation that could arise.
Other than in an emergency, don’t expect to see Phoenix Police Department officers within 75 feet of a polling place, or even monitoring one, said Phoenix police Commander Brian Lee, who leads the city’s Homeland Defense Bureau.
Phoenix police realize that their presence can be intimidating, which is why they plan to stand back unless needed, Lee said.
“That’s part of creating that safe environment for people to feel like they can go and conduct their lawful business without fear or intimidation or anything like that,” Lee said in an interview this week. “So we are keenly aware of that.”
Some vote centers have been open since Oct. 7, and Jarrett said that everything has gone smoothly. He assumes that things will go smoothly on Tuesday as well.
“I would be surprised if we have to call (the sheriff’s office) at all,” he said.
Planning, watching for election-related threats
Every presidential election cycle sees growing political divisiveness in the days leading up to the election.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and police use-of-force issues have wedged an even greater divide in the electorate. Widespread concerns exist on all sides of the political spectrum about voter access and intimidation issues.
President Donald Trump has called for his supporters to watch over polling places. In Arizona, a pro-Trump militia group is warning residents to be prepared after election results come in to protect their neighborhoods from extreme left-wing protesters who would be upset should Trump be re-elected.
Maricopa County’s elections department had not been made aware of any credible threats as of Friday, said Megan Gilbertson, a department spokesperson.
The elections department and law enforcement are monitoring election-related threats here and elsewhere, she said.
Staff from the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, a joint effort between the FBI and Arizona agencies that monitors homeland safety, is keeping an eye out for situations that elections officials or law enforcement officers need to know about, Gilbertson said.
Phoenix police has been part of a planning committee for months that has talked about proper response to any kind of activity on Election Day, Lee said.
This year, in particular, it’s been important for the police department to maintain awareness and collaborate with other agencies, he said.
“There has been a lot of activity, as we have all seen across the country,” he said. “Really, for us, it is part of our due diligence to make sure that we know what is going on in other areas and we have the appropriate information to be able to assess our own environment, our own community.”
New county training includes de-escalation
Jarrett said the county recently revised its training for poll workers to include customer service components, such as how they can be more aware of their surroundings and how they can de-escalate tense situations.
The county added this training knowing that voters sometimes take issue with the voting process, in part because they aren’t aware of state laws that dictate how it has to be run, Jarrett said.
The lead poll worker at each site, called the inspector, is well-versed in those laws and knows how to calm voters when they have questions, he said. Part of that is sometimes asking an upset voter to step outside the voting place so that other voters aren’t intimidated.
If the person will not listen or still has questions, the inspector will notify the site’s troubleshooter that they need assistance.
What to do if feeling threatened at the polls
If someone shows up outside of the polling location and is intimidating voters, election workers can tell them that intimidating voters is not allowed, if they feel comfortable doing so, Jarrett said.
The election staff know that if they feel uncomfortable or threatened, or if a voter still will not comply, they can call the Sheriff’s Office, Jarrett said. The sheriff’s deputies will arrive armed but in plain clothes to try to help diffuse the situation.
If voters feel uncomfortable or intimidated, they should tell election staff first, Jarrett said. If they don’t want to approach the polling place, they can call the county’s voter hotline at 602-506-1511.
In emergencies, voters and election staff should call 911.
Lee said public safety dispatchers are involved in the Election Day plan, so calls can be “routed to expedite response,” and so that many agencies can respond.
So far, things have gone smoothly in Phoenix, Lee said.
“We have been very fortunate,” he said. “We continue to monitor the activity that occurs daily and make sure that we have the appropriate resources available.”
Police plan for Election Day as they do for any big event
After the polls close, the county has security in place to ensure that election workers feel safe as they transport ballots from vote centers to county headquarters.
And as results come in, Lee said police are prepared to address any protests or large gatherings that may follow.
As political rallies and protests have unfolded in the past several months, Lee said, police have formed relationships with community leaders. They try to find out about events before they occur and learn more about them so they know how many officers to send out and how to approach protecting the crowds.
Phoenix police has so far not heard of any plans for protests on Election Day, Lee said.
“We want to make sure we have people there to ensure that whatever they are there to accomplish, we help them be successful in doing that,” Lee said, “but we also have a responsibility to preserve peace and make sure we provide for a lawful situation.”