Important Update: Ocala Police Chief Graham tells the Patriot that the idea of posting officers at polling places was discussed, but not acted upon.

Marion County Florida.

Important update to this post. According to Chief Graham, Sheriff Billy Woods, Chief Graham and the Wesley Wilcox, the Supervisor of Elections only discussed posting deputies at the polling stations. In my conversation with Graham this afternoon, he said he spoke with Wilcox about the possibility of posting deputies but the conversation went no further. He explained he would be happy to do it or not do it if asked but he indicated the decision is not his to make, it is the Supervisor of Elections, Wesley Wilcox’s call. As far as he knows, no decision has been made.

According to poll watchers with the Marion Democratic Party, Ocala City Police Chief Graham, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods and Republican SOE Wesley Wilcox have decided Marion County law enforcement will be present at all voting locations in Marion County during the election. It is not clear if this includes early voting or only on election day.

Sheriff Billy Woods was recently featured in the national news over his order that members of the public must remove their masks when entering his police stations and that his deputies not wear masks in public. It appears that if Woods’s order remains standing, his deputies will not be wearing masks at polling stations.

Chief Graham was asked by Democratic Election Monitors if law enforcement had concerns that a police presence could be seen as voter intimidation, Graham indicated they expected criticism over the decision.

Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, police officers regularly shut down registration efforts in the South. Many communities fear a return to Jim Crow-era policies.  In 1981 the Republican Party in New Jersey sent off-duty police and sheriff’s officers to voting precincts in Black, Hispanic, and Democratic neighborhoods.

According to WNYC news “Citizens with outstanding warrants, owed child support payments or even unpaid traffic tickets worried that voting would get them in trouble. Word spread from Newark to Vineland, and untold numbers of voters stayed far away from the polls. For some of those who did show up, their eligibility was challenged as they sought to enter the voting booths.”

After a 10 million dollar lawsuit against the Republican National Committee, Republicans were restricted by a federal judge to the types of “ballot security” they could employ across the country. In 2016 the US Supreme Court voted to end this requirement. This is the first National election since 1981 where Republicans are free to monitor elections without supervision from a Federal judge.

In 2016 Macon Bibb County, Georgia attempted to move its polling places to the Sheriff’s offices. In order to stop that move, local advocates collected signatures from 20 percent of active, registered voters in the county. In response, the U.S. Commission on civil rights wrote, “Using the Sheriff’s office as a polling place can be intimidating, especially considering the history of violence by local law enforcement at the polls during the Jim Crow era,”  

The same year, Greene County Missouri attempted to place armed sheriffs at polling stations. “The Advancement Project wrote, “Police should only be at the polls where a specific and legitimate law enforcement need justifies that presence”. Although the effort to block the officers failed, they did agree to wear plain clothes and have their weapons and badges concealed.

President Trump has repeatedly called for police presence at polling stations throughout the country. Although he has said he would send Federal troops, he can not legally do so.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of voting rights organization Fair Fight Action, said  “A police officer at the polls might make someone think, “Oh wait a minute, if there’s police outside, are they going to ask if I’ve paid my child support? Are they going to harass me on other issues I may be having?” she said.

Calls to Ocala Police Chief’s office were not returned.

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