By Lewis Griswold
Election officials in California say they aren’t expecting voter intimidation at polling places, but they’re coordinating with sheriffs and police chiefs in case someone with a badge needs to step in pronto.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra sent a bulletin to law enforcement officials last week reminding them that voter intimidation and election interference is against the law. He laid out rules about what poll watchers can and can’t do.
Eighty-eight percent of Californians expect violence after Tuesday’s vote and plenty are worried about election day disruptions. Law enforcement officials say they are aware of the concerns.
“While we fully expect a peaceful election day, we are prepared to address any potential violence that may occur on November 3rd or the days following,” the Los Angeles Police Department said in a statement earlier this week.
In-person voting has begun in some California counties, but vote centers and consolidated polling places open Saturday in 36 of the state’s 58 counties and will remain open daily through Election Day.
Early voting has been encouraged in the pandemic, and 41 percent of voters had already voted as of Sunday, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.
Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub posted a video on the department’s Facebook page addressing concerns about the election.
“Safe, free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and they must remain as such,” Ayub said in the video.
He acknowledged reports on social media and news outlets about the threat of violence and civil unrest during and after the election, but said there are no specific threats to the community, and they are in contact with state and federal officials.
The political climate surrounding the election, with President Trump alleging that mail-in ballots might be rigged, for instance, has raised concerns about patriot militias, protesters, or others showing up to observe at the polls and potentially making voters nervous.
Elections officials say they always work with local law enforcement, but this year’s election news has made them more vigilant.
“This year we have had extensive conversations with the various law enforcement agencies in the county to make sure they can respond should we need assistance at the polls,” said Mary Bedard, registrar of voters in Kern County.
In Fresno County, the sheriff’s office hasn’t fielded any special requests from the registrar of voters but is aware of the potential for disruption at a vote center.
“While we won’t be stationed near any polling stations, we will try and have deputies in the vicinity, barring other emergency calls, for faster response times in case an issue arises,” said sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti.
Poll workers are trained to deal with difficult voters or situations, elections officials say.
“If they see a situation needing to be addressed, they should try to de-escalate the situation,” said Ryan Aralar, Santa Clara County public communication specialist. “But if anytime they feel unsafe, or a voter feels unsafe, they have to call authorities immediately.”
Sacramento County reported an incident at a vote center involving a Trump supporter wearing a Trump hat and T-shirt who became combative when told electioneering is not allowed inside a polling place or within 100 feet. When shown the election code, he ultimately removed his hat and wore his shirt inside out, then voted and left before law enforcement arrived, said Janna Haynes, public information officer.
Counties also are training workers to handle an in-person voter who refuses to wear a mask.
They’ll be asked to wear one but won’t be denied the right to vote if they don’t. Sacramento County poll workers will bring that person a ballot to mark in their car or elsewhere, and if they insist on voting inside, poll workers will set up a space that’s far from other people, Haynes said.
Some elections officials are dealing with more poll watchers than usual.
In Nevada County, several people from the Election Integrity Project California have signed up to observe the early ballot processing taking place, said Gregory Diaz, registrar of voters.
He said he’s expecting as many as 100 observers to sign up by election day. In previous years, the number of observers has been about five people, he said.
“There seems to be a passion I haven’t seen before, an aggressiveness I’ve never seen before,” he said. “I’m all for transparency but I’m not for disruption and I’m not for hidden agendas.”
The Election Integrity Project, not to be confused with a similar-named research project based at Harvard University, is affiliated with the conservative Public Law Foundation. It produced the documentary Stolen Choices alleging election corruption.
It’s legal for poll watchers to observe at a polling place or the main office, but there are rules. Observers can’t challenge a voter’s qualifications to vote or communicate with voters within 100 feet of the entrance or inside a polling place, for instance.
Verified incidents of voter intimidation are rare.
Earlier this month, the Nevada County elections department received complaints about a Trump rally held near a ballot drop box that made some voters feel uncomfortable, Diaz said.
He said he and other officials met with organizers and asked them to hold their next rally elsewhere. They were cooperative, he said.
The Secretary of State’s office said in Kings County someone complained about a police cruiser parked next to a ballot drop box. The cruiser was relocated. And a video on social media of someone with a sword at a Trump rally in Beverly Hills threatening a woman who was driving by is being investigated.
Meanwhile in Shasta County, Cathy Darling Allen, registrar of voters, said she’s not worried about patriot militia members potentially making a scene at polling places.
“I am aware that this is a concern that’s been expressed in some news reports,” she said. “So far, I have not heard anything about this happening locally.”
Like other voter registrars, she’s met with local law enforcement “not in response to any specific threat or concern but just out of an abundance of caution,” she said.
This story was produced with tips from ProPublica’s Electionland project.
This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Graduate School of Journalism.