State and local leaders tried to assuage fears of voter suppression Wednesday as concerns over possible intimidation, including armed “militias,” linger following President Donald Trump’s call for his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully" on Election Day.
“Not even just a few months ago, we had militia groups throughout the City of Philadelphia purporting to act in the interest of law enforcement here in the City of Philadelphia,” City Council member Helen Gym said. “We are very concerned about similar groups or others who might come in from outside, who feel that they are authorized or have the right to intimidate, to threaten, to stand quote-unquote guard to poll watch when they don’t have the right to do so.”
However, she and several other officials in city government assured voters that they will be safe at the polls and that anyone guilty of intimidation will be jailed and charged with a felony punishable with up to seven years in prison, a sentiment echoed by Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar.
“We are here to tell you that the District Attorney’s Office intends to make sure that there is no threatening presence at these polls. We are well-prepared and ready to act immediately along with our criminal justice partners if anything like that should happen,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said.
Boockvar noted that election officials are “working closely” with state and local law enforcement, as well as the National Guard, to ensure voter safety during what she described as “a very high-tension circumstance right now.”
She reiterated that official poll watchers must be certified and neither they nor anyone else is allowed to intimidate others. She cited examples of voter intimidation including photographing or videotaping voters; disseminating false or misleading election information; blocking the entrance to a polling place; confronting, hovering, directly speaking to or questioning voters; engaging in threatening behavior; or asking voters for documentation.
The message to voters came after the president raised fears of intimidation as he and his circle continue to peddle unfounded and debunked claims of mass voter fraud.
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The debate was not the first time Trump or someone in his orbit called for supporters of his to hit the polls and watch others. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, urged his father’s supporters to form an "army for Trump's election security operation."
The rhetoric has already had implications, both in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
In Philadelphia, a woman who claimed to be a poll watcher paid by the Trump administration was kicked out of a satellite election office – in which people can register to vote and drop off mail-in ballots but which is not an official polling place – after she showed up and made attempts to “monitor what was going on,” a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter said. The woman was not registered as an official poll watcher.
There was also controversy in Fairfax County, Virginia, when a caravan of Trump supporters showed up and rallied outside an early voting location, NBC4 Washington reported. Republican officials in the county rebuffed claims that the supporters were trying to intimidate voters, but Democrats, including former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, claimed the Trump supporters were shouting at voters.
Krasner urged people to call the District Attorney’s Office’s Election Task Force hotline at 215-686-9641, as well as the national voter hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE, to report any voter suppression efforts. Prosecutors, with the help of county detectives from the Philadelphia Police Department, “will review complaints, initiate investigations, and deploy to locations as needed” in cases where someone calls the DA’s hotline, said Krasner spokeswoman Jane Roh.
However, there is still some concern about how officers with the Philadelphia Police Department will respond if armed groups come out Nov. 3.
Though he said he believes Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw “wants to see the vote protected,” Krasner noted that he is still “looking forward to hearing more” about the PPD’s plans for Election Day.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see repeat of the perception that there is some kind of friendly relationship between police and people who are self-proclaimed militia members or people who falsely claim to be defending governmental institutions when the government has not called upon them,” Krasner said.
He was apparently referencing at least two incidents in which PPD officers were accused of fraternizing with armed groups as they attacked people during protests following the death of George Floyd and during protests over the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia.
In a statement to NBC10, Outlaw said her department "is currently in the planning stages with partner city agencies to ensure that the propriety of this election is upheld in accordance with the laws of our commonwealth."
Meanwhile, city leaders continue to ask people to vote, whether it be in person or by mail.
“Do not be afraid. Make sure you come out and be counted,” Council member Kendra Brooks said. “Make sure your vote matters because our job as elected officials is to protect it.”
Voter turnout will be extremely important in Pennsylvania, a key swing state that only narrowly went for Trump in 2016.
Heading into this year’s election, Boockvar said she thinks “our total voter registration may be an all-time high,” with nearly 9 million Pennsylvanians already registered to vote.
Of those, about 4.1 million are registered Democrats and 3.4 million are Republicans, she said. No party preference and independents make up about 875,000 of registered voters, while a little under 400,000 are listed as “other,” she said.
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