Law enforcement deputies will be stationed at five early voting sites in Florida, officials said, after two armed men dressed as security guards who, by some accounts, claimed they had been hired by the Trump campaign to provide security were seen at a campaign tent outside a polling station on Wednesday.
According to local reports earlier this week, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus that the armed men, who wore blue polo shirts with a security guard insignia to the polling site on Wednesday, were professional guards and had appeared outside of the polling site on behalf of the Trump campaign.
Gualtieri appeared to reverse those statement when he later suggested, according to The New York Times, that he had “absolutely no confirmation” that the men who sported gun belts with firearms on their khaki pants, had been hired by Trump’s reelection campaign.
A Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald further distanced the campaign from the men saying in a statement to TPM: “The campaign did not hire these individuals nor did the campaign direct them to go to the voting location.”
Trei McMullen, the head of Syotos the security company where the armed men work, suggested that the event was a misunderstanding.
“We had an off-duty employee who was picking up a family member who happened to be in the vicinity of a polling location,” McMullen told the Times, adding that the employee was “in no way engaging in poll watching.”
The back-and-forth about the appearance of the armed men at the polling site comes after President Donald Trump has often urged supporters at rallies in recent months to go to voting sites and act as “poll watchers” to ensure Democrats don’t cheat in the election.
“Be poll watchers when you go there,” Trump told supporters at a rally in North Carolina last month. “Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do. Because this is important.”
During the first presidential debate in late September, President Trump repeated that call, telling supporter to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
Voting rights advocates have criticized efforts by the Trump campaign to solicit an “Army for Trump” to watch polls on Election Day, suggesting that those efforts could amount to voter intimidation.
But the county’s sheriff appeared to rebuff those claims — suggesting that while their presence may not give some voters “a great feeling,” the men hadn’t broken any laws by appearing armed at the polling site.
“Their mere presence does not constitute voter coercion or intimidation,” the sheriff told the Times. “Some people may see these people here and it doesn’t give them a great feeling. On the other side of the coin, it may give others a good feeling, because they feel protected.”
The comments follow at least one similar incident in the battleground state.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said on Thursday that her office would be investigating a separate Florida case in which a police officer wore a pro-Trump face mask while in uniform to an early voting site in Miami-Dade County earlier this week.