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Election Supervisors: Voter Intimidation Will Not Be Tolerated

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After voters in Florida cast millions of ballots by mail, early voting began Monday and runs through Saturday, Oct. 31.  There are concerns that groups or individuals may try to intimidate voters and influence the election results. But election supervisors say -- they’ve got this.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully; because that’s what has to happen – I am urging them to do it,” said President Trump during the first presidential debate.

But what the president is calling for could be an illegal act. Both Florida and federal laws prohibit any attempt to coerce or intimidate voters at a polling location.

“I am urging my people; I hope it’s going to be a fair election,” Trump said. “If it’s  fair election, I am 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”

Early voting runs through Saturday, October 31, Halloween. Northwest Florida’s supervisors of elections are confident that the rule of law will prevent intimidation at the voting booth if unofficial "poll-watchers" show up. Okaloosa Supervisor Paul Lux says a change in the no solicitation law two years ago keeps non-voters back another 50 feet.

“So now anyone who want to be there doing any type of solicitation – handing out flyers, waving signs – is going to be 150 feet from the entrance to the polling place,” said Lux. “Which should afford most people the ability to come, and vote, and leave without having to come face-to-face with any of those folks.”

Disturbances at polling places in Okaloosa are handled, says Lux, in the same manner as such incidents elsewhere – law enforcement is summoned.

“So if someone were to be actually intimidating voters inside the 150 feet they’re going to get to spend the day with Sheriff [Larry] Ashley and his team until they sort themselves out.”

“We meet in advance with both local law enforcement [and] all the relevant agencies, just to make sure we all understand each other,” said Escambia County Supervisor David Stafford. “But obviously, elections are all about access. We have to have access to the polling places, as well as you have to have security. And that can be somewhat of a sliding scale; but you have to maintain full access and maintain full security.”

That’s something which is addressed by local election officials, says Stafford, adding there’s plenty of protections built into the Florida’s election laws.

“There’s really kind of a zero-tolerance policy; the clerk of the precinct is invested with enormous authority to make sure that voters are allowed to come in and vote uninhibited and leave," said Stafford. “Whether personally asking those individuals to leave, or should it become necessary, to escalate it.”

During a virtual statewide press conference Monday, several supervisors of elections tried to spread the word that it could take days for election officials to get a final tally in the presidential race. One of them was Marion County’s Wesley Wilcox.

“We need to give all of us a little bit of time,” Wilcox said. “We want to ensure that everything we produce, everything that we publish is 100% accurate. We do not have the opportunity to be wrong.”

Leon County Supervisor Mark Earley says the COVID-19 pandemic has forced his office and others to enhance health and safety procedures for in-person voting, such as offering face masks and sanitizer, while cleaning voting booths between users. But Earley adds they won’t turn anyone away who shows up to vote in-person.

“I am certainly not going to prevent somebody from coming in who is not wearing a mask,” said Earley. “I am a bit concerned about the reverse reaction where somebody takes offense and tries to help me do my job by forcing a voter to wear a mask. That is not a good situation either.”

Ballot security is another sacrosanct issue for elections officials. Okaloosa County’s elections office is in a former bank building. Supervisor Paul Lux says instead of protecting money, it now helps guard the election process.

“Everything that can’t be recovered if our building were to be burned down, blown down in a hurricane, etc. everything is locked in that high-security vault,” said Lux. “Ballots from early voting at the end of every early voting day; all of the vote-by-mail ballots, whether we’ve got them all checked in or not, they all get locked up.”

By law the signatures on ballots must be checked to verify voters’ identities, says Lux. If they don’t match, the voters are contacted.

“We contact you by phone if we have your number; by email if we have your email [address], by mail,” Lux said. “Once things are tabulated they still stay inside that vault. You’re going to have to blow a pretty sizable hole in my building if you would like in that room, and I’m pretty sure we’ll notice.”

Voter fraud has been voiced as a concern in the nationwide dialogue, but Escambia’s David Stafford says that’s “fairly improbable” and can’t necessarily happen in Florida, because Florida has a different set of laws than other states.

“Florida has been working very hard to make sure the ‘Help America’ voting act from 2002,” Stafford said. “All of the statewide central voter database; cleaning up duplicates, etc. We’ve joined ERIC [Electronic Registration Information Center] this year, which will start removing duplicate registrations.”

Bottom line, says Stafford, is that it’s very difficult for somebody to impersonate another voter.

“We do actually check the signatures; it’s not a rubber stamp; ‘if it came in and it has a signature we throw it in the bin as good and we don’t check,’” said Stafford. ”We actually look, and in person.”

The Justice Department and FBI say they're stepping up Election Day security, bracing for unrest, given the current climate of the country.