As Election Day Approaches, Safety Concerns Mount

From protests to voter intimidation, local officials say they’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst on Election Day

Early in-person voting began in Los Angeles County on October 24, and the region, like much of the rest of the country, is seeing unprecedented numbers of people hitting Vote Centers and mailing in ballots. Now, as what might be better termed Election Tallying Day approaches, officials are turning their attention to election-related security and safety.

This involves both worries of voter intimidation and suppression on Election Day—during the September 29 presidential debate, Donald Trump urged his supporters to show up at polling places to monitor the proceedings—and concerns about general public safety on November 3 and in the following days as votes are counted. While some might dismiss the idea of widespread dissension in heavily Democratic Los Angeles, others point to recent large and loud pro-Trump rallies in Beverly Hills and other locations as a potential precursor of division sparked by a president who regularly warns of a rigged electoral system.

Mayor Eric Garcetti downplays the likelihood of violence erupting in Los Angeles on and around Election Day, but he’s still taking precautions.

“We’re well prepared. I’ve been meeting every week with the chief of police, Michel Moore, and we feel confident,” Garcetti said during a Tuesday morning press event. “There’s a lot of kind of rumors out there, that people should close their shops. We’re saying absolutely not. We’re telling people that they can safely vote.”

Still, plans to ensure safety are underway. The Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday said it will modify its schedule to “ensure that a sufficient number of officers will be available to work evenings and into the weekend.” The statement also said that the department is working with other local and state entities “to coordinate our response and plan for any protests or groups that might become violent.”

Precautions are also being taken in Beverly Hills, which in addition to pro-Trump rallies has been the site of racial justice protests. In a video statement on Monday, Beverly Hills Police Chief Dominick Rivetti said that starting on Halloween, the department will be on full alert. Additionally, Rodeo Drive will be closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“As Election Day approaches and with the potential of increased demonstration and protest activity across the regions, the city is taking a proactive approach to ensure a safe community for residents, businesses, and visitors,” Rivetti said.

In years past, L.A. County was home to approximately 4,500 neighborhood polling places. This year that shifted to regional Vote Centers; 118 opened October 24 (including landmarks such as Staples Center and Dodger Stadium), and another approximately 650 will come online for four days of voting starting on October 30. There are also 405 voting drop boxes spread across the county (mail-in ballots were sent to every registered California voter early this month, and more than 5 million people across the country have already voted).

Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the office of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, which oversees local elections, said poll workers have received extensive training on all aspects of public safety. That starts with COVID-19 protocols, and goes on to encompass unexpected but still plausible events.

“Included in that training is a ‘What To Do If,’ and that would be if certain scenarios were to occur,” Sanchez said. “In that they are directly provided phone numbers to our office. They are instructed if it is an absolute emergency, the first person that needs to be called or contacted is the proper law enforcement authority.”

He added that the office is working with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, as well as police departments of individual cities in the county.

While voter intimidation is illegal, California does allow the presence of election observers or “poll watchers.” Sanchez said this year they, like every voter and poll worker, must adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines including wearing a mask and maintaining physical distancing. Additionally, the time they can spend inside a Vote Center is limited.

“We’ve had election observers for years and we have protocols in place to be able to accommodate that,” Sanchez said. “It is a public process.”

Yet there is a clear line between observing and interfering in the electoral process. Sanchez noted that electioneering in Vote Centers is prohibited (it is also not permitted within 100 feet of a voting location), and there are laws regarding what one can and cannot wear at a polling site. References on clothing or hats to specific candidates or ballot measures must be covered up, while non-specific slogans are allowed; the California Secretary of State’s website points out that, for example, someone can wear a T-shirt that blares “Down with Liberals.”

While election observers are allowed in Vote Centers, generally uniformed law enforcement personnel are not. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, points out that it is illegal for the president to direct members of the military or the Department of Homeland Security to a voting location for the purpose of interfering with an election. Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice are limited to observing election sites to ensure that federal voting rights laws are being followed.

Security also is in play when it comes time to counting votes, as Sanchez said there are systems to transport ballots from Vote Centers to the Registrar-Recorder’s tally operations center. What remains uncertain is timing; Sanchez said this is going to be a high-turnout election, and in the past, it has taken hours for the office to count and post vote totals on its website.

Sanchez said the overall experience has gone “very well” in the first four days at Vote Centers. Garcetti agreed that so far, local voting has proceeded smoothly. His approach seems to be akin to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. He indicated that Los Angeles has yet to face a safety or security risk, but said that the city is ready if anything happens.

“We see bits and pieces of this around the country, and then everybody thinks there’s going to be mobs here. We’re not seeing any of that,” the mayor remarked. “But we’re prepared. So we’ll have personnel. We can surge that up if necessary, and we will make sure people’s votes are protected.”

RELATED: Answering Your Questions About How to Vote in Los Angeles

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