Recent polls suggest that the presidential election may be decided by a razor-thin margin in Florida. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the state could turn on a few thousand votes.
But an unprecedented election season, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence against protesters, has raised fears over voter intimidation and suppression in the state. And with early voting underway for nearly two weeks, there have already been dozens of reports of confrontations and accusations of intimidation at polling sites.
An armed Miami police officer appeared at a polling site in uniform, wearing a “Trump 2020” face-mask. On Oct. 21, armed security guards showed up at an early polling site in St. Petersburg, allegedly claiming to work for the Trump campaign. The campaign denied it had hired the guards, and the security company denied it had employees “engaging in poll watching.” Threatening emails were sent to Florida voters, supposedly by far-right group the Proud Boys, telling them to vote for Trump or “we will come after you.” The federal government has since blamed Iran for the emails. Those were just the highest profile incidents.
Michael Pernick, an attorney with NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the organization has “received a significant number of complaints from voters that we categorize as aggressive electioneering that could in some cases be construed as intimidation.”
But grassroots state activists are responding. Last month, four progressive Black and Latinx groups formed the Coalition for Black and Brown Ballot Access (CBBBA) to combat voter intimidation, suppression, and disqualification.
“If there is an attempt to intimidate someone or give out misinformation, we have people at the same polling site that can stop it and intervene,” Nancy Batista, a Guatemalan immigrant and the Florida state director of Poder Latinx, a member group in CBBBA, told The Appeal. “We’ve got the ground covered.”
CBBBA’s initial focus was on driving registration and turnout among typically disaffected voters and helping voters fix issues encountered when using mail-in ballots.
“We organized this last-minute effort because we saw that there was a gap in terms of the work being done to reach out to Black and brown voters in places where they aren’t traditionally reflected in the electorate,” campaign manager Phillip Jerez told The Appeal. “We know Black and brown voters are the target for voter suppression.”
According to Jerez, CBBBA has a digital campaign hyper-targeting 600,000 voters of color across the state, as well as a phone-banking and texting campaign targeting 120,000 voters of color who have only voted in one out of the last four federal elections.
“This is a nonpartisan effort,” said Jerez. “We just want Black and brown voters to vote.”
The coalition, which is composed of the Hispanic Federation of Florida, Black Voters Matter, Poder Latinx, and the Equal Ground Education Fund, has volunteers at “just about every polling location” in Orange, Osceola, Lake, Polk, and Seminole counties, all of which have significant Latinx and Black populations, said Batista. It will also place volunteers at polling sites on Election Day.
The volunteers are relaying to community members how long the lines are at particular voting locations and recommending better early voting locations within their county or alerting county officials if the lines are overly long. They are also intervening when voter intimidation occurs, whether by overzealous election officials, partisan poll watchers, or someone else unaffiliated.
Nationwide, over 100 progressive and voting rights groups have joined together to create the Election Protection Coalition to monitor voter intimidation and advocate for voters across the country through a hotline run by over 20,000 volunteer lawyers. Common Cause Florida, one of the organizations in the coalition, has said it will deploy close to 1,000 trained poll watchers to monitor alleged voter intimidation on Election Day in approximately 55 of Florida’s 67 counties.
Though progressive groups are putting forward a significant effort to combat voter intimidation, law enforcement in Florida is moving in as well.
In response to last week’s incident in St. Petersburg, the sheriff’s department there announced that it would station deputies at early voting sites through Election Day as a precaution. Plantation, Broward, and Alachua counties have said separately they will have police officers patrol near local polling stations regularly through Tuesday. After a flood of fearful messages from residents, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez deployed plainclothes officers near early-voting sites.
“The level of anxiety and fear from residents and business owners is really unlike anything we’ve seen in the past,” Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina told the Herald last month.
Many fear that police presence at polling stations meant to protect the vote could end up deterring those most likely to face voter intimidation: people of color. Dating back to the Jim Crow era, law enforcement has often been used to intimidate nonwhite voters, particularly in the South. For that reason, many states have laws banning police from appearing at polls unless directly called by an election official to deal with an issue. In Florida, law enforcement is prohibited from being stationed inside polling locations, but the rest is largely up to county law.
Last week, a group of civil rights and voting rights organizations, including the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund released a letter condemning the decision to deploy deputies at polling stations in Pinellas County, saying that it could “amplify” voter intimidation, rather than combat it. The Advancement Project, a nonprofit focusing on racial justice issues, has said it has received frequent calls and reports about police on site at polling stations in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties.
“Whether it’s an armed police officer patrolling a polling place or just having a police car with lights blaring in front of a polling place, all can serve as a form of voter intimidation and certainly can have a chilling effect, particularly in Black and brown communities,” Gilda Daniels, litigation director for the Advancement Project and author of “Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America,” told The Appeal in July.
The reports don’t seem to have dissuaded people. As of Friday, 9 million of the 14.4 million registered voters in Florida had already mailed in ballots or visited a polling site, according to the state.