In most elections, voters never think about whether they’ll encounter law enforcement officers at their polling places. But in that way, as in so many others, this year’s election is like no other.
With many observers concerned about the potential for voter intimidation, it’s little wonder that some local election officials plan to add security at polling places and that public safety agencies are preparing for the possibility they’ll be called on to keep the peace.
Walking a Fine Line
Police generally are not responsible for maintaining order at polling places. That job falls to election workers, who can call for law enforcement support, if needed. (Election laws vary by state; see sidebar.) But if called on, can police carry out their peace-keeping responsibilities this year in a nonthreatening way? It won’t be easy. Two former officers say that this election has put America’s police in uncharted territory.
“The problem is that we are living in a very polarized nation, and the challenges police might encounter are ones we haven’t experienced in modern memory and that there is no clear playbook for,” says Brandon del Pozo, a former New York City police officer who served as chief of police in Burlington, Vt., and is now researching the consequences of substance use and addiction at Rhode Island’s Miriam Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
The problem is that we are living in a very polarized nation, and the challenges police might encounter are ones we haven’t experienced in modern memory and that there is no clear playbook for. —Brandon del Pozo, a public health expert and former chief of police in Burlington, Vt.
“The biggest challenge for police on Election Day will be striking the balance between so many important priorities,” del Pozo says, including “fostering and protecting First Amendment acts of expression while preventing disruptions or unlawful electioneering at polling places, handling people who want to make a statement by coming to polling locations armed, ensuring people they will be nonpartisan when many police labor unions have been politically outspoken during campaign season, and doing this in an environment when some people might see their simple presence at the polls as intimidating and all of this happening on the heels of one of the most challenging years for the police profession in modern memory.”
Adding to the challenge for officers is the opposing nature of people’s concerns: it’s voter intimidation for some, potential fraud for others, says Rich Stanek, a former Minneapolis police captain, three-term sheriff of Hennepin County, Minn., and now the principal consultant at Public Safety Strategies Group in Minnesota.
“We anticipate that concerned voters and poll watchers will demand that law enforcement officers take action to help them ensure fairness,” he says. “The challenge for local law enforcement is not to get caught up in the middle and stay focused on our two-part mission: 1) maintain the public trust in the fairness and integrity of the election and 2) preserve and keep the peace.”
Stanek says it’s important that officers serve in uniform on Election Day. “Law enforcement should be present with full transparency, as a visible presence in support of the lawful elections of our local, state and national leaders, a visible deterrent, and as a further reminder that their role is to preserve and keep the peace.” He also suggests that agencies consider assigning reserve officers or deputies to polling places instead of armed law enforcement officers.
It will be critical for police leaders to understand their role in advance, del Pozo says. “They don’t want to be figuring out how to respond to allegations of fraud or election law violations for the first time at the polls on Election Day.” He recommends advance coordination with local elections boards, a law enforcement agency’s legal counsel, prosecutors and state officials.
Both former officers cited the importance of discretion on the part of police called to polling places on Election Day. “They should address the reasons they were called as unobtrusively as possible, in ways that avoid the appearance of monitoring the voting, and then depart,” del Pozo says.
Law enforcement should respond to calls as they ordinarily do and avoid a greater response than is necessary, Stanek says.
“There is no win-win for law enforcement here,” he says. “They have a duty to respond, and no matter what they do—too much or too little—some people will be critical.”
Kevin Frazzini is an editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.