Election Departments Partner With Local Police To Get Out Ahead Of Expected 2024 Threats

Police officers walk through a polling station during early voting ahead of the US midterm elections in Los Angeles, California, on November 1, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
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Back in 2012, an elections official in California witnessed an Election Day skirmish between two candidates at a polling place. 

Two police officers arrived at the scene, but called the incident a civil matter, claiming that nobody had committed a crime, even if in reality, there had been a violation of the state’s election code. 

And that’s how Neal Kelley, who was the Registrar of Voters for Orange County at the time, came up with a simple idea: to create an elections pocket guide for law enforcement during elections, outlining the possible crimes, misdemeanors, and felonies that can be committed at a polling place, but are not necessarily in the penal code. It was a way for law enforcement to quickly get up to speed on an area that they might not necessarily know a lot about. 

The incident highlighted to Kelley, a former police officer himself and now current chair of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, that there was a way for election officials to partner with law enforcement, by making it easy for law enforcement, who might not be familiar with election violations and election processes, to identify violations of a state’s election code.  

For example, a California guide outlines that it is a criminal violation under the state’s Election Code to threaten or coerce voters in a polling place, or to falsely represent oneself as an election worker. 

These pocket guides were quickly adopted in all 34 cities in Orange County. But after the 2020 election, following a barrage of violence, harassment, and intimidation to  election workers, the guidebooks grew in popularity, and have now been adopted by elections departments in 30 different states. 

The guidebooks serve as just one tool that elections officials are using to foster long-term relationships with law enforcement in the aftermath of 2020 — a relationship that has at times been strained, but that has also increasingly become a priority for elections officials heading into the 2024 presidential election.

“The threat environment for election officials right now is much more challenging than it was five years ago, and law enforcement might not have a full picture of what that threat environment looks like,” David Becker, the executive director and founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research told TPM. “And it’s always good to have good two-way communication going back and forth.”

The challenge for election workers is figuring out how exactly election workers should foster a relationship with law enforcement. 

It’s difficult for experts to recommend that a single relationship with law enforcement be implemented in every state. In some states, for example, it’s illegal to have police officers at polling places, while in others, it’s mandatory.

And even in the jurisdictions where it is legal to have law enforcement present, it’s a delicate balance election officials need to strike between deterring criminal activity and intimidating voters. 

This balance has been particularly challenging in places like the South, where law enforcement has a history of intimidating Black voters. A 2021 study from David Niven, professor of American politics at the University of Cincinnati, found that police presence at a polling place in Alabama was associated with a 32 percent reduction in Black voter turnout.

“What you really want to prevent is anything that could be intimidating or violent or could obstruct the process,” Becker said. “And being able to have that communication with law enforcement so they understand what the ultimate goal is, which is that we want things to be safe and secure and convenient and welcoming.”

Becker noted too that violence at a polling place is exceedingly rare, so creating a “police state environment” at polling places is not necessarily the answer. What is  becoming less rare after 2020 is election worker violence and intimidation in the days and weeks following an election. In this case, Becker suggests that law enforcement should be ready to respond to threats and aware of when and where early voting or where ballot counting will take place, for example, so that if necessary, they can easily provide a perimeter and safety for workers. 

Law enforcement, he added, should also be aware of how they will perform their duties in the case that there is a claim that an election was rigged or stolen. 

Former Georgia election’s director and current deputy director of Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council Chris Harvey, who received a death threat in the aftermath of the 2020 election similarly says it’s necessary for election officials to seek out a long-term relationship with law enforcement that extends beyond a particular election, whether law enforcement is allowed to be present at a polling place or not. 

“The relationship between law enforcement and elections should be a permanent one,” he said. “It’s not something that they should just throw together a month before the election and station some cops at different places.”

Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen explained in an interview with TPM that developing stronger relationships with law enforcement is not to suggest that they have not been responsive up until this point, but rather, since 2020, a whole new array of clear and present threats has emerged.

“It’s not that there was a lack of anything at all,” said Darling Allen. “The relationship is there, but I think that it can always be deepened and improved and it’s really important.”

If law enforcement understands just how present the threat to election workers is they’ll be more likely to proactively respond to calls for violence or harassment, she said. 

Election workers looking to foster these relationships should meet local law enforcement in-person, and develop what she calls “casual familiarity with these folks.”

“You need to know your sheriff. You need to know the police chiefs of all the major cities within your county,” she said. “You need to know at least by sight the faces of the folks who are going to support you in law enforcement on election night and in the days after,” she said.

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