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Officials prepare for potential disruptions at polls on Election Day

An NYPD officer stands outside the Board of

An NYPD officer stands outside the Board of Elections Manhattan borough office on Oct. 8 as people register to vote. Credit: Sipa USA / Anthony Behar via AP

ALBANY — Police will never be far from polls this Election Day on Long Island as part of extensive security measures to protect voters and poll workers as a polarized electorate votes in the highly contentious race for president and other offices.

Civil rights and good-government advocates said they worry about disruption at the polls and intimidation of voters after President Donald Trump urged his supporters to "go to the polls and watch very carefully" for the fraud he warns against without evidence.

State election law provides for many security measures. For example, the law allows only people who are voting and those in line to vote to be in the polling place, along with poll workers of each party. Others must stay outside. No campaign activity is allowed within 100 feet from the entrance to the polls. Precautions against the COVID-19 virus, including mandatory masks and social distancing, will further reduce the capacity at polling places.

In addition, federal law states that anyone who "intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce" a voter faces up to a year in jail and a fine.

Trump in the September presidential debate said he is "urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen." Soon after, his son and adviser, Donald Trump Jr., called for "every able-bodied man, woman" to show up at polls as an "army for Trump’s election security operation" to stop Democrats’ effort to "steal the election."

But there has never been evidence of widespread fraud at the polls or in mail-in elections and none is predicted for Nov. 3, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, several academic studies and Federal Elections Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

State and federal election law allows certified poll watchers to keep track of voter turnout for their party and potentially challenge the residency of a voter, which would be settled at a later date after the voter casts a ballot. State law says a poll watcher must be certified by a candidate or party chair. The poll watcher also can’t be disruptive or they will be removed.

"This has certainly proved to be an unprecedented election season and it’s one that requires vigilance," said Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights organization that is part of the coalition called Election Protection. "We have already gotten some calls and complaints from voters. My hope is that those issues are not widespread."

In September, Trump supporters waving flags and without protective masks demonstrated at an early voting site in Virginia, at one point standing in front of the walkway to the polls. In Philadelphia, Trump supporters briefly demonstrated inside a site used to register voters for mail-in ballots.

Because of a concern that polls in New York could face similar disruption, advocacy group Common Cause is part of an "election protection" coalition. Common Cause staff and volunteers will be positioned outside polling places to help voters report any intimidation or barriers to voting. Those reports would be made to local and state election officials.

Whatever the catalyst, election law prohibiting disruption at or outside polling places and routine practices to enforce it are in place, election officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties said.

"At this time we are not aware of any safety threats to election poll sites, but we will be prepared if assistance is needed," said James P. Scheuerman, Democratic elections commissioner in Nassau County. Local police will be with elections officials on Election Day at the Board of Elections’ call center so they can be immediately dispatched.

"Entry to poll sites, other than for poll workers and voters, is restricted to official poll watchers, who must have credentials issued by a political candidate, and members of the press, who must have an access letter issued by the Board of Elections," Scheuerman said. "By law, no electioneering is permitted within 100 feet of a polling place entrance, which means there can be no efforts to influence or persuade voters within that area."

Nassau County election officials are meeting regularly with the Nassau County Police Department on Election Day plans.

"We will have officers with us adjacent to our Call Center, so they can dispatch and coordinate any police response as needed," Scheuerman said.

In Suffolk County, police cars will continue a practice of patrolling around polls in every town with Republican and Democratic election officials. If there is a disruption requiring police, a car will be 10 minutes or less away from any polling site, according to a top county election official.

Poll sites in New York City will have a police officer at every polling location, said John Conklin of the state Board of Elections. Election law also allows for additional police or peace officers to be posted. Statewide, all poll workers are advised that if there is disruption they can’t handle to call the local police.

In addition, the law requires "guardrails" at every site, a cordoned-off secure area where ballots will be kept. Only election officials, authorized poll watchers, and police officers will be allowed into that area. Anyone who refuses to leave the area after voting "shall be removed by the inspectors." Voters who need assistance to vote because of a disability can get help, but falsely claiming the need to bring another person into the secure area is a crime.

After voting, a voter must "forthwith" leave the polling place.

"As if election officials didn’t have enough to contend with this season," said Clarke, of the civil rights group. "Now they also have to assure there is no intimidation and compliance with those campaign-free area rules for no electioneering, that now must be read more broadly."

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