Election 2020

Will Police at Polling Places Cause Voter Intimidation?

Voters fill out their ballots during primary voting at the Fox C-6 Roy Wilde Conference Center on Aug. 2, 2016, in Arnold, Mo. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

Civil-rights organizations said that police officers who may be proactively placed at polling stations to guard against potential violence at the ballot box may actually cause voter intimidation.

The Advancement Project, the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP and the Mound City Bar Association sent a letter Sunday to Shane Schoeller, clerk of Greene County, Mo., asking that his order to place police at polling sites in Springfield, Mo., on Tuesday be rescinded.

Schoeller said last week that deputies would be stationed at about 45 polling places. That plan was changed Saturday from deputies in their full uniform to plainclothes officers.

The county clerk said he called on law enforcement in response to voter and election officials’ concerns about “the tension and conflict they have witnessed or experienced related to this election cycle.”

Plus, due to the expected amount of voters, Schoeller said, “Large groups increase the likelihood of rising tensions, in what has already been an emotionally charged election year.”

“If an incident occurred and we were not properly prepared to respond, questions would certainly be raised as to why there was not a plan and those concerns would be valid,” he said. “We want to be proactive and plan accordingly to ensure we are prepared.”

Under the umbrella name Missouri Election Protection, lawyers from the three civil-rights groups told Schoeller that they “appreciate” the clerk’s decision to remove deputies’ uniforms, but “the continued presence of police inside poll sites without a particularized law enforcement justifications remains problematic.”

“Police may certainly be at polls to undertake official police business, such as picking up mid-day ballots, for example, or responding to a 911 call, but cannot simply be stationed at or linger at poll sites without further justification. Vague fears and unsubstantiated concerns about ‘divisiveness’ do not rise to a cognizable need for police presence. Should an incident arise requiring police presence, they can be dispatched to the site just as with any other incident call,” the coalition wrote.

“Indeed, the presence of police at poll sites can be inherently intimidating to voters, particularly in communities of color where such presence has historical ties to efforts to impede voter access to the polls. In some communities, police at poll sites is far more likely to disrupt the voting process than facilitate it, and carries a likelihood of intimidating or impeding voters access.”

In an earlier conversation with Schoeller, the lawyers recalled, “You would not divulge the specific poll sites in which deputies would be stationed, nor would you disclose the basis upon which you selected particular polls for officers’ assignments, but acknowledged that the ‘crime rate around the polling place had been one factor considered.'”

After the plainclothes change, the groups still seek “further information on the justifications for your directive and the basis upon which you decided to place police at particular poll sites.”

“Please be advised that we will take all reports of intimidating police presence at the polls seriously and will request that such police be ordered to leave. We intend to alert the United States Department of Justice regarding any such reports as well. Your office has authority to ensure that polling sites are operating in compliance with the law, to prevent activity that impedes voters, and cannot authorize police presence in polls without a legitimate concerns for the safety of voters and poll workers,” the letter adds. “We intend to enforce legal provisions against voter intimidation at the polls to the fullest extent of the law.”