Republican and Democrat operatives aren’t the only ones planning to keep a close eye on polling sites in South Florida. So will many police departments, citing growing public concerns about potential voter intimidation efforts or potentially violent protests in an election with a bitterly divisive presidential race at the top of the ballot.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Police Chief Jorge Colina, at a press conference on Monday, said the city had canceled all vacation and days off for sworn officers for the next two weeks and will deploy plainclothes detectives near the city’s four early voting sites. Though there are no reported credible threats toward voting places, the extra efforts are intended to reassure jittery voters.
“We’ve received emails and messages from lots of scared people,” said Suarez, who was flanked by two city commissioners and several members of Miami’s police brass.
The city isn’t alone in stepping up scrutiny of voting sites. Miami-Dade police said they intend to make sure roadways leading in and out of voting sites remain clear and that they’re freeing up officers to respond quickly to any concerns. Miami-Dade also blocks gun owners from bringing weapons to polling sites.
“Not even concealed weapons firearm owners are permitted to bring them into the polling places,” said Miami-Dade Police Detective Angel Rodriguez.
In Broward County, the Sheriff’s Office has set up a command center much like it does in preparing for a hurricane.
Even the tiny village of El Portal, which will open for voting for one day at one place — Village Hall on Election Day — is making extra preparations. Chief Dave Magnusson said most of his 19 officers, both full and part-timers, will be in uniform on Election Day and he will beef up patrols.
“Any groups of people looking to intimidate, that won’t be accepted,” he said. “You can hold a sign, that’s America. But when you begin making someone feel uncomfortable, that’s something you’d expect in a Third World country.”
It’s in Miami, where downtown over the last year has drawn numerous protests and marches by Black Lives Matters activists and other groups supporting police, where the concerns seem the most elevated. Colina, the city’s police chief, attributed public anxiety to “radical fringe groups” on both sides.
“The level of anxiety and fear from residents and business owners is really unlike anything we’ve seen in the past,” said Colina.
He warned anyone who might try to disrupt the voting process. “You can be charged federally. And we will enforce the law.”
Despite the warning, Colina said a member of his senior staff met Monday with the FBI and that there were no credible threats to any of Miami’s polling stations.
Suarez, Miami’s mayor, called this election cycle “antagonistic,” irrespective of who you’re voting for. He said demonstrations have been “heated” and that the city, like everywhere else around the nation, expects a high voter turnout.
“Voting is one of our more fundamental rights,” the mayor said. “And we intend, in the city of Miami, to protect those rights.”
While the first day of early voting in Miami-Dade and Broward counties seemed to go smoothly, there was one minor incident reported at Fort Lauderdale’s Coral Ridge Mall. Some voters were asked to leave after showing up without masks. They did, but later returned again without face coverings, yet were able to cast ballots. That seemed to go against an order last week by by Broward County Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci, who told police to remove anyone not adhering to the mask mandate.
For some departments, potential polling disruptions were not a huge concern.
Miami Beach police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said his department wasn’t planning anything out of the ordinary or placing officers anywhere near the polls. If anyone had concerns, he urged them to call 911. In Hialeah, officers walking along a line that snaked around the JFK Library voting site said they were merely enforcing social distancing.
But when a Hialeah officer was spotted standing next to the voting entrance — well inside the 150-foot limit required of campaign workers and law enforcement by state statute — Suzy Trutie, the deputy elections supervisor for the county, said she contacted staff there and that the officer had moved on.
The early voting season has also meant the reactivation of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s voter fraud task force, which was created years ago as questions swirled about the integrity of absentee ballots. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said that with its activation, more than two dozen investigators from her office police agencies have been dispatched to different areas of the county.
Though in the past, most complaints have centered around campaign workers being too aggressive or vocal, Fernandez Rundle said task force members will be able to quickly respond to reports of voter intimidation and other complaints. The state attorney promised investigators would remain unobtrusive.
“We’re not there to interfere. We don’t wear uniforms. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re part of any enforcement team,” Fernandez Rundle said.
More than 3 million people are expected to vote early this year in Florida before Election Day on Nov. 3. That would be a record. And the surge in turnout comes while President Donald Trump, behind in most polls, has repeatedly issued unfounded allegations of voter fraud and has urged supporters to keep an eye on voting precincts.
Some political protests and caravans in South Florida have been marred by yelling on both sides but no significant outbreaks of violence. But there are still two weeks left before Election Day.
In Broward, NAACP President Marsha Ellison told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that her concerns extended to a fear of paramilitary-styled groups harassing voters. In Miami-Dade, NAACP President Ruben Roberts did not share that worry. He noted that any organized group planning any type of disruption “needs to be [equally as] fearful of the community they’re coming into.”
“We’ve had four years of watching how things are going,” Roberts said. “It seems like division and strife are more and more.”
Miami Herald Staff Writers Aaron Leibowitz and David Ovalle contributed to this report.