What Florida democracy looks like in 2020 early voting

“We are in this heightened political environment, where tensions are running rampant and social media is not just amplifying them but it’s selective amplification, where people pick the message they want,” says one elections official.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri walks along the sidewalk near the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, Thursday, October 22, 2020.  On Wednesday, armed guards were seen at the nearby Trump campaign tent. No guards were seen Thursday morning as of 7:30am.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri walks along the sidewalk near the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, Thursday, October 22, 2020. On Wednesday, armed guards were seen at the nearby Trump campaign tent. No guards were seen Thursday morning as of 7:30am. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 28, 2020|Updated Oct. 28, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — A Trump supporter sat in a lawn chair and used a blow horn to shout to voters waiting in line last week outside the early voting site at the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines. A Democratic poll watcher violated the rule of silence at a Lake County polling site, and aggressively confronted a voter and a member of the elections staff. And in Orange County, a voter parked his truck outside an early voting site and blared what voters complained was “pro-Trump” music.

Those were just some of the dozens of reports of disruption and claims of intimidation that have emerged this polarized election year in Florida as voters stream into early voting sites where emotions are high and they are sometimes greeted by eager, and aggressive sign wavers, caravans of cars flying flags for candidates and, occasional direct threats.

“We are in this heightened political environment, where tensions are running rampant and social media is not just amplifying them but it’s selective amplification, where people pick the message they want,” said Steve Vancore, spokesperson for the Broward Supervisor of Elections office.

By law, it’s the job of supervisors of elections to keep order at the polls and, while many elections offices have increased law enforcement presence this year as they also try to keep voters safe from COVID, it’s become a delicate balancing act, Vancore said. “Supervisors are between a rock and a hard place.”

They must navigate the free speech rights of sign-wielding, often overly enthusiastic voters, while also protecting others from calculated intimidation, often aimed at suppressing the vote.

They have had to deflect rumors and misinformation, including false claims about the integrity of the voting process made by President Trump and his supporters. And whatever they decide, their decisions get amplified on social media, and sometimes distorted by extremist groups and funneled to their followers as disinformation.

“We train our early voting staff and poll clerks on the procedures in place and statutes on the books as it relates to the political rhetoric that we hear,” said Bill Cowles, Orange County supervisor of elections. “If anybody were to challenge a voter, there is a process in place, and it’s a third-degree felony for making a false challenge.”

No one in Florida keeps track of all the voter intimidation complaints, but an organization of more than 100 progressive groups and voter advocacy organizations has established the Election Protection Coalition with a hotline, 866OurVote, manned by 23,000 volunteer lawyers. (The Tampa Bay Times has partnered with ProPublica’s Electionland, which is also fielding complaints from voters and poll watchers, and the Times has a direct way for Tampa Bay residents to report such tactics.)

"There are people engaged right now that have never been engaged before, and they are very enthusiastic about what they are doing,'' said Liza McClenaghan, state director of Common Cause Florida, which is a member of the Election Protection Coalition.

Rumors and misinformation

Fueling much of the tension are the false claims circulating on social media.

Cowles described how he and his staff have had to counter the rumor that 50,000 lawyers were headed to Florida from other states to serve as poll watchers. Florida is one of 39 states that allow private citizens to serve as poll watchers and challenge voters at the polls, he said, but they must wear a badge and be a registered voter in the county.

He said he has had to correct the false claim that people are allowed to take pictures of voters casting ballots. (He cites the state law that prohibits photography in polling places except when people want to take a picture of their own ballot.)

And he has slapped down the inaccurate warning making the rounds on social media that poll workers are allowed to write on your ballot. "That just doesn’t happen in Florida,'' he said.

Alan Hays, supervisor of elections for Lake County, also finds himself clearing up wild rumors.

"People who are patient enough to listen to an explanation walk away with a wow factor,' he said. “We do a lot of voter education.”

Complicating the job is the constant barrage of disparaging claims from the president, who urged supporters during the first debate to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Trump also has derided the mail-in voting system with baseless claims of fraud, and suggested on Twitter that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

“Some of the rhetoric is not lost on us,” said TJ Pyche, a spokesman for the Alachua County supervisor of elections office.

The president has shown he has the power to influence supporters.

In 2018, after Trump lashed out against elections supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties amid the highly publicized recounts for governor, U.S. Senate and agriculture commissioner, several pro-Trump Facebook pages and one Twitter account posted the home addresses and phone numbers of the elected officials. The tactic, called “doxing”, is considered harassment and is prohibited by Facebook, Twitter and most other online platforms, which ultimately removed the posts.

Increased police presence

This year, with groups on the right and left on high alert over increased tensions at the polls, many supervisors interviewed by the Times/Herald have engaged in more planning than in previous years and assigned more off-duty law enforcement to polling locations to prevent potential disruptions.

When the City of Miami “received emails and messages from lots of scared people,” Mayor Francis Suarez canceled vacation and days off for sworn officers for the next two weeks and deployed plainclothes detectives near the city’s four early voting sites.

Pyche, of Alachua County, would not go into details about the security plans in his county, except to say that law enforcement has agreed to increase patrols around polling stations until Election Day. But he acknowledged that the amount of planning that went into security this election cycle “had not happened in previous years.”

In Pinellas County last week, when two armed people dressed as security guards were seen at a Trump campaign tent outside a polling station, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced he would station deputies at five early voting sites as a precaution.

The two said they were guards for a Florida-based security company and claimed to have been hired by the Trump campaign, a claim the campaign denied. But the emphasis on law enforcement also drew warnings from 10 civil rights and voting rights groups who said that a police presence at the polls could discourage Black and Brown voters from showing up.

“Although we appreciate your stated commitment to combating voter intimidation, we are concerned that part of your response may amplify it,” wrote the group, including the NAACP, Common Cause and League of Women Voters in a letter to Gualtieri last week. They said that “law enforcement presence should not be automatic, and officers should not generally be stationed at the polls preemptively.”

Gualtieri responded that the mere presence of his deputies "does not constitute voter coercion or intimidation.'' The groups report that some of the deputies have since arrived at the polls in plain clothes and unmarked cars.

State law not only prohibits law enforcement from being stationed inside polling places, most police agencies prohibit their officers from electioneering.

On the second day of early voting in Miami last week, city police officer Daniel Ubeda was disciplined for wearing a face mask with a profane pro-Trump slogan at an early voting site while in uniform. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said her office would look into the case.

Mark Earley, supervisor of elections for Leon County, which is home to the state Capitol, said he has had “long meetings” with local law enforcement about the possibility of disruptions at the polling places.

"We’re certainly cognizant of this possibility,'' he said. He said that supervisors are in close contact with federal and state authorities who are tracking online misinformation and intimidation efforts and will “put a quick halt to that.”

"But frankly, some of what you see in other states, I don’t think will happen here,'' Earley said. “Florida has very good laws relating to voter intimidation, and we also have laws prohibiting the open carry of weapons. Those two things I think work to our advantage.”

Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections in Polk County, however, said supervisors must use law enforcement selectively.

"The presence of law enforcement at polling locations can also be considered intimidation, so we need to keep that in mind as we make plans,'' she said. “Threats of voter intimidation are an age-old effort at voter suppression. The threats are the tactic — and are not necessarily actualized.”

Disinformation intimidation

Sometimes, however, media coverage of the threat is enough to achieve the goal of intimidation or disinformation, and both sides selectively use it to their advantage, said Jesse Littlefield, vice president for campaigns for Common Cause, who heads up the organization’s disinformation research.

When a string of voter intimidation emails emerged last week, purportedly sent by the Proud Boys, a self-described militia group that supports Trump, federal law enforcement officials said Iran was responsible.

The next day, however, the Miami-based leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, told the Gateway Pundit, a right-leaning news site, that he didn’t have evidence but believed the emails were sent by “a left-wing agitator” and his organization was “being used as pawns in this campaign.”

And Democrat-leaning voters were seen on social media amplifying the story "with the message of ‘this is the Trump campaign’s plan for voter intimidation,’ " Littlefield said. “But I don’t think there is evidence to support that.”

Littlefield criticizes the media for often elevating election stories that are isolated incidents or administrative errors, and “it becomes the story that carries the water for the disinformation actors and conveys the sense there is a bigger problem at foot when we’re just reporting on it.”

He cites the story of the Pennsylvania election worker who accidentally discarded nine military ballots and officials called it a “bad error” but “not intentional fraud.”

In an attempt to counter the false claims, Common Cause and the Election Protection Coalition has recruited 4,244 volunteers to monitor social media, particularly Facebook and NextDoor accounts, for evidence of disinformation.

"They try to look for disinformation about voting in elections that could affect any voter that could be disenfranchised, or undercut the public’s faith in the outcome or the process of the election,'' Littlefield said.

Polling watchers and rules

The coalition has also recruited and trained more than 2,500 official poll watchers to monitor and report any conflicts or attempted intimidation on Election Day, McClenaghan said.

At every polling site, the supervisor assigns an election worker, called a “deputy” to be posted at the entrance and charges them with enforcing a 150-foot “no solicitation zone” beyond the polling room door. The supervisor’s designated clerk is then authorized to “take any reasonable action” to ensure order at the polling place, including having unruly or disruptive people removed.

Michael Pernick, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that while state law allows demonstrators to assemble 150 feet away from the polling site, the social-distancing requirements in a year of a pandemic make it more difficult for voters waiting in line to avoid them.

"We have received a significant number of complaints from voters that we categorize as aggressive electioneering that could in some cases be construed as intimidation,'' he said.

"When demonstrators are yelling at voters or are not respecting social-distancing protocols and getting close to voters, those activities could cross the line from lawful electioneering to unlawful activity,'' Pernick said.

Other complaints the NAACP has fielded this year are concerns about car parades blocking access to polling sites, he said. He cited the federal Voting Rights Act, section 11b, which defines voting intimidation as any conduct that voters consider intimidating.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee is confident that local officials have it under control.

"I know they’re very experienced with doing that and ensuring that when a voter arrives at the polls to cast a ballot, they’re able to do so in a way that is safe and is not disruptive,'' she said in an interview. “We are of course, preparing for anything that could interfere with our voting process — from the cybersecurity, to the physical security.”

She said that her agency hosted a training session with supervisors earlier this month to discuss “worst-case scenarios so they could be prepared for whom to contact and what to do in the event that they needed assistance on Election Day.”

"There’s always something,'' said McClenaghan of Common Cause. “In 2016, they had ‘drain the swamp’ being chanted at some polling sites. We want it to be safe for the voters to cast their ballot and feel comfortable when they make their selections. There have always been poll greeters, handing out palm cards for candidates. This year, they are a little more aggressive.”

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