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Utah preps response plans amid national worries over voter intimidation, threats

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Jessica Purkey, an ACLU of Utah poll watcher, observes a voter placing their ballots in a drop box at West Valley City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Even as the vast majority of Utahns exercise their right to vote by dropping a ballot in the mail this election, state and local law enforcement agencies along with election officials and civil rights watchdogs have plans in place to respond to any acts of voter intimidation at in-person polling locations or civil unrest following election night.

Concerns about illegal electioneering and/or activities intended to instill fear in voters at the 120 or so polling locations throughout the state have been elevated this cycle, thanks in part to national political rhetoric.

And some potential concerns have already begun to bubble up in Utah.

One national organization sent out a warning about a southern Utah group with alleged connections to militia groups preparing to send armed members to polling places to “protect against election interference and rioting.” Another local organization, Utah Citizens’ Alarm, posting a warning on social media, that in the event of an election victory by President Donald Trump, the “far left” will “riot until he is forced from office” and “we are not going to allow that in Utah.”

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State Election Director Justin Lee said, first and foremost, he and his team hope that amid ongoing pandemic concerns and restrictions, everyone who is able to complete their ballot can submit it via regular mail or a local ballot drop box. But he also noted his office has been working with county clerks around the state to prepare for whatever may come their way.

“We’ve shared specific information with the counties as a reminder of the rules that apply to poll watching and what is and is not allowed,” Lee said. “We want to be sure everyone is prepared and thinking about their responsibilities.”

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Jessica Purkey, an ACLU of Utah poll watcher, stands near a ballot drop box outside of West Valley City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Utah state law forbids any activities that could be deemed electioneering — including oral messages, displaying signage or wearing clothing items that promote a specific candidate or ballot issue — from taking place within 150 feet of a polling location.

Other activities that could be considered voter intimidation include following voters to, from, or within polling places; disrupting lines or blocking entrances; brandishing or intimidating display of firearms; or directly and aggressively challenging voters’ qualifications.

The Utah Constitution also stipulates that so-called private militias are not allowed to perform law enforcement activities, including patrolling or policing voting operations, outside state authority, providing that the “military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.” Each Utah county clerk has the authority to certify poll watchers who are allowed to appropriately monitor activities at polling locations.

While state and local law enforcement agencies, in partnership with federal authorities, say they continue to be on alert for evidence of any overt threats or calls to illegal action, Lee’s office, along with the Utah state attorney general, reported that they were not tracking or aware of any serious, viable threats.

Preparations, however, are in place to respond quickly to any issues at in-person polling locations through the election as well as any postelection civil unrest.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office has formed a “ready team” of executives and lawyers to respond to any election-related complaint or concern.

Spokesman Richard Piatt said the team will be able to respond directly, or if necessary, refer issues to the appropriate person or agency. He said while his office is hoping for an election cycle that is free of any irregularities, this year “has been a lot different than the past” and the attorney general is ready to play a role in solving any election anomalies.

“No matter how many or how few voters show up at polling places, any kind of intimidation at all is a concern,” Piatt said.

The attorney general’s office has also set up a line to assist voters in addressing any nonemergency, election-related issues. Anyone who needs assistance can call or text 801-381-6168.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah deploys poll watchers every election cycle to ensure fair and appropriate processes and the organization said that while it is expecting the elections to run smoothly, it is also prepared to help respond to any issues.

“We want to be overprepared rather than under,” said ACLU of Utah voting rights manager Nikila Venugopal. “We expect that Utah, as a state with a lot of experience in vote by mail, will have a smooth election and most people will not need to use a polling location.”

But Venugopal said the ACLU has been meeting with various groups, including law enforcement officials, to talk through best practices should any issues of voter intimidation arise. She noted that election judges and poll workers should have all received training on how to handle most, if not all, incidents that may occur at the polls.

“We’ve talked to officials around the state and feel we’re all on the same page, that law enforcement should not be the first response if an incident occurs,” Venugopal said. “Ideally, whatever situation arises can be dealt with by the county officials and their poll workers.”

Venugopal said the key to a peaceful process is committing to an approach, should the need arise, to de-escalation and ensuring that no one feels harassed or threatened before, during or after they vote. She also noted a national voter protection hotline that can provide resources for anyone that runs into early voting or Election Day issues, 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said he meets regularly with civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Utah, and is in full agreement that a law enforcement presence at polling places itself could be disruptive and, in a typical election cycle, is almost never an issue.

But Brown also recognized this election comes with expanded concerns about situations that could lead to dissuading or intimidating voters, and like other agencies around the state, his department is ready for the unexpected.

“In Salt Lake City, we’re prepared,” Brown said. “This is an issue that has been discussed at the Major Cities Chiefs Association and we’ve been planning for it for some time.”

Brown said most of the issues being discussed surrounding in-person polling have been of the functional variety, like figuring out how to best handle situations without any police assistance, like voters who show up at the polls without a mask (most locations will have a disposable one to offer). But he noted it’s the unexpected that can be the most difficult to anticipate.

“Being called out at all for election-related issues has been very unusual in the past and I’m hoping there is no reason for us to respond during this election season,” Brown said. “But we’re prepared to respond to anything that may occur on election night and the days and weeks to follow.”

On Wednesday,a St. George News story diffused a warning that was shared with media outlets and law enforcement agencies by the Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection that members of the Civil Ground Control militia in Washington County were preparing “to station themselves while armed outside voting centers in Washington County to protect against election interference and rioting.”

Patricia Kent, who heads the Liberty Action Coalition, a group with connections to Civil Ground Control according to the paper, said her group is not a militia, but rather a “neighborhood watch” organization and has no plans to be monitoring polling locations.

Utah Citizens’ Alarm, the group that has organized an armed presence at several anti-police protests this year, has no plans to show up at the polls. But it has been recruiting and training new members ahead of Tuesday.

“We are absolutely not going to be out as a group on Election Day. In fact, we’ve even told people, ‘if you go to vote, don’t even wear your UCA shirt,’” said Casey Robertson, the group’s founder and president. “It’s not the day for anyone trying to look intimidating or anything like that. That’s the last thing we want.” 

While Robertson said he does not think violence is likely to erupt in Utah after the election, the group is preparing just in case, bringing on at least five to 10 new members a week and holding trainings. Members are keeping an eye on Washington, D.C., where they believe left-wing activists are planning to use force to remove Trump from office if he wins another term as president.

Robertson expressed the view Tuesday in a post on the Utah Citizens’ Alarm Facebook page, urging people to “be ready.”

While it drew comments such as “bring on that civil war,” the sentiment doesn’t reflect the views of the group, Robertson told the Deseret News. 

“None of us that I have talked to in my entire group want any sort of conflict,” he said. “Whoever would want a war is a freaking idiot. ... Why would anyone want that or be looking forward to that?”

Robertson founded the group in response to violence that broke out at a Provo protest in June, where law enforcers say an anti-police demonstrator shot and injured the driver of an SUV as it pushed through a swarm of protesters. Utah Citizens’ Alarm rejects the label of militia, saying its members are concerned Utahns who simply want to protect their community.

The group’s Facebook page was shut down for a time after the social media platform   announced in August that it would remove accounts discussing potential violence.

In the unexpected event of riots in cities along the Wasatch Front like Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo, the group is ready to step in and help police departments, making it a priority to prevent groups from spilling over into neighborhoods, Robertson said. 

Contributing: Annie Knox