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Police readying for Election Day after divisive campaign

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Election officials and law enforcement are tamping down concerns that one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history will result in Election Day violence.

The Hill reached out to more than a dozen police departments across the country to inquire if they’re preparing enhanced security plans for Nov. 8. Those that responded said they aren’t making different security preparations than usual, at least for now. 

Tempers have run high across the country during the 2016 cycle, with punches thrown at a few campaign events.

Things took a darker turn over the weekend when a North Carolina county GOP office was firebombed and armed protesters stationed themselves outside a Virginia Democratic congressional candidate’s campaign office.

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s repeated warnings that the election is being rigged against him is a new factor. At Wednesday’s debate, he refused to say he would accept the results of Election Day.

{mosads}Trump has also offered racially tinged warnings of possible voter fraud in cities with large African-American populations, including Philadelphia and Chicago.

He’s called on his supporters to sign up as election observers, asking volunteers to sign up on his campaign website to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”

The possibility of Trump volunteers clashing with Clinton voters would be more likely if a number of people take up Trump’s call.

Both parties typically have poll watchers across locations where people vote. Local political parties frequently nominate officials like clerks and inspectors to conduct voting. Candidates and parties then have an additional layer of oversight by sending poll watchers to observe and monitor the election officials. 

Poll watchers can point out perceived irregularities or errors to the election officials. Beyond that, party lawyers are available to assist if officials reject the poll watchers’ claims.

Officials in one of the states where Trump and his supporters have suggested there could be fraud say there is no credible threat of violence and that they have no plan to beef up the police presence.

“At present, there is no credible threat that would affect the conduct of the upcoming election,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortés said in a statement.  

“Still, we remain vigilant and will continue to work closely with our partners to monitor potential incidents and respond quickly should the need arise,” said Cortés, who noted that his department has been coordinating with local and federal law enforcement. 

Pennsylvania is one of the most hotly contested states in the country, and Trump supporters have noted news reports about precincts in Philadelphia that in 2012 reported no votes for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Reporters for The Philadelphia Inquirer searched for Republican voters in the predominately African-American precincts that reported no votes for Romney but were unable to find any who voted for the GOP nominee.

Police presence at polling locations vary by state. In Pennsylvania, for instance, uniformed law enforcement can’t come within 100 feet of a polling place unless called by an election judge or county Board of Elections. 

But in a state like Massachusetts, police officers are stationed in every polling place.

Police departments contacted by The Hill indicated they’re preparing for Election Day as they normally would.

“Just like with every election cycle, the PPD will work to ensure that the voting rights of all our citizens are protected,” the Philadelphia Police Department’s office of public affairs said in an email.

“We are not aware of any specific threats nor do we anticipate any disturbances,” Sgt. Jonathan Howard of the Phoenix Police Department said. 

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction, some local officials expressed concern earlier this year that anger over a state Republican Party loyalty pledge would result in conflict during the presidential primary. Trump and his supporters opposed such an oath because they feared it might discourage independents and people who hadn’t voted before. 

Fairfax County’s office of elections and Board of Supervisors even asked that public schools, many of which serve as polling places, close that day to keep children away from potential disruptions caused by the loyalty pledge. The state’s GOP eventually dropped the requirement, but schools closed anyway due to anticipation of unusually high voter turnout for the primary.

The Northern Virginia suburb outside Washington, D.C., isn’t anticipating enhanced security for the general election, however.

“We have no changes to our security plans on Election Day,” Fairfax County spokeswoman Lisa Connors said.

Officials are creating strategies to respond to worries of potential voter intimidation. 

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Education Fund, which promotes the political participation of Latinos, plans to send a letter to the Justice Department this week requesting resources to prevent voting disruptions.

Vargas compared the current worries of voter intimidation to Minutemen civilian border militia acting as if they were border patrol agents to confront immigrants illegally crossing the southern border. 

“I’m very concerned that some private citizens may think it upon themselves to take the law into their own hands and start being their own poll watchers without any of the proper training, without knowing that unless they are part of the actual administration of the elections, they could be breaking the law,” Vargas said.

NALEO also plans to coordinate with election attorneys to be able to respond promptly to reports of irregularities on Election Day.

Matthew Masterson, vice chair of the Election Assistance Commission, said that jurisdictions will have contingency plans in place in the event a disruption does occur. 

He also expects election officials are reviewing rules for authorized poll watchers and election observations. 

“I can tell you that election officials, just like every other election, have plans in place,” Masterson told The Hill. “I can assure you they’re going back and making sure their plans are ready.”

Local election officials typically have backup strategies ready, even for benign events like a water break in the building where a polling place is located. While contingencies can vary by jurisdiction, some may have “mobile polling places” at the ready to transport to a polling place if necessary.

“They have a plan to continue voting at that polling place,” Masterson said. 

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