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Pinellas Sheriff will station deputies outside early voting sites

The decision came after Wednesday evening when two armed security guards were spotted among people campaigning for candidates outside the early voting site in downtown St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG —The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office will assign uniformed officers at the county’s five early voting sites, an abrupt personnel move that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said was prompted by unverified complaints of potential voter intimidation.

Four days into early voting that continues through Nov. 1, Gualtieri told reporters Thursday that he decided to add officers after an incident Wednesday evening involving two armed security guards. They were standing close to people campaigning for candidates during early voting at the Supervisor of Elections office in downtown St. Petersburg.

It is still not clear why the two guards were outside the office at 501 First Ave. N, but Gualtieri emphasized that they did not appear to be doing anything improper, asserting that their mere presence did not constitute voter coercion or intimidation.

But their presence did raise concerns from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections and others, who worried whether the intent or effect was to intimidate voters.

“There’s zero reason for anyone to be armed, openly armed, out in front of a polling place,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said during a news conference Thursday. He said he disagreed with Gualtieri that the guards' presence was not voter intimidation.

“Voter intimidation is not going to happen in my city,” said Kriseman, whose City Hall office is down the street from the elections office. “It’s not going to happen in Pinellas County."

Gualtieri said he made the decision to add deputies to all the early voting sites because he hopes that will help to more quickly stop rumors about similar incidents at voting sites while allowing law enforcement to intercede more quickly if there is voter intimidation.

“We’re in this mode where things have taken on a life of their own and things are being reported and repeated and reported and repeated,” Gualtieri said. He said he hopes the deputies will be “calming” and will let people know that they have “unfettered, unrestricted, unintimidated access to these early voting sites.”

Gualtieri, a Republican who is running for re-election, said he recognized that having a law enforcement presence could actually make some voters feel less comfortable, but said he was trying to strike a balance. He said his office will also use undercover personnel to monitor some polling places this election.

A recent Tampa Bay Partnership survey found that only 7 percent of Black Tampa Bay residents feel safer when they see a police officer and 60 percent feel less safe. Comparatively, 51 percent of white residents said they feel safer when they see a police officer.

Related: Survey: Across Tampa Bay, Black and white residents see deep racial disparity

Gualtieri said Thursday he had heard anecdotes about “people yelling and screaming at each other” at some early voting sites and said that people “throw around” terminology like voter intimidation or coercion. He said he understands that “people are on the edge of their seats” during this election.

“It’s extremely important that everyone have access to early voting sites and they have access to these early voting sites in an unfettered, uninhibited way that they feel comfortable casting their votes,” Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri called Wednesday’s incident involving the armed security guards a “non-event. This is a non-incident.”

The guards were outside the 150-foot no-campaigning area around the elections office and were licensed to carry the weapons, Gualtieri said.

The guards wore khakis and polo shirts and told law enforcement that they had been hired to provide security for those campaigning for President Donald Trump, Gualtieri said. But Gualtieri noted that there is no confirmation that their claim is true, and that the Trump campaign said it did not hire security to work that location.

One of the armed guards, a woman, is a volunteer at the Pinellas County Republican Party headquarters, said state Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of Republican Party of Florida. He told the Tampa Bay Times that local party officials did not know why she was outside the downtown elections office. Gruters said he was unsure about the identity of the second armed security guard spotted in a photo taken Wednesday.

Gualtieri said Thursday that the guards were working for a Crestview-based company called Syotos.

Trei McMullen, the owner of Syotos, confirmed that the female guard works for his company and said the armed man pictured with her was her brother-in-law, who works for a different security company. McMullen noted that photos of the male guard show him wearing a vest, which McMullen said is not something his employees use.

While he declined to identify the woman, McMullen said she was not working at the time and was just picking up her brother-in-law, who, McMullen said, was also not working.

Still, the incident rattled nerves Wednesday, causing a stir among local and national media.

Trevor Mallory, a candidate for Pinellas County Property Appraiser, said he was handing out palm cards and greeting voters outside the early voting site on Wednesday evening and said he believed the two guards were manning the Trump tent. He said he found that “disturbing.”

“This guy had a gun on his hip, he had a gun strapped to his thigh,” Mallory said, adding that the male security guard also appeared to have knives on his utility belt.

Julie Marcus, the supervisor of elections for Pinellas County, said Wednesday evening that staff brought concerns to her attention and that her office worked with the sheriff’s office to respond.

“Voter intimidation and any perceived threat and intimidation, as far as I’m concerned and the sheriff is concerned, is not going to be tolerated,” Marcus said Wednesday evening.

Marcus, a Republican who is running for election to the seat she was appointed to this year, said she was concerned by the reports she was hearing but said that she and her staff “followed the plan to a T today and were able to have law enforcement there to address the situation, figure it out.”

By late Wednesday, some TV news stations reported on the incident as potential voter intimidation. The campaign for Joe Biden released a statement Wednesday denouncing voter intimidation tactics. (The statement also specifically noted threatening emails that had been sent to some Florida voters that purported to have been from the Proud Boys but that the FBI said had been orchestrated by Iran.)

Related: Iran may be behind ‘spoofed’ emails sent to Florida voters, say federal officials

On Thursday, Dan Helm, a Democrat running against Marcus for supervisor of elections, released a statement calling out the presence of the armed guards as voter intimidation. He attacked the decision to place deputies at voting sites.

“The problem was: the presence of individuals carrying guns that intimidate voters. The solution cannot be: the presence of individuals carrying guns that intimidate voters,” the statement said.

Times Political Editor Steve Contorno and staff photographers Scott Keeler and James Borchuck contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE: Access the Tampa Bay Times’ Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on early voting locations, rules for voting by mail and more.

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

WHY A FLORIDA CITY’S BLACK VOTERS BEAT NATIONAL AVERAGES: Turnout is 10 percent over the national average. That’s been true for generations. The story of Chester James Sr. helps explain why.

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