Neither mincing words nor coddling candidates, Flagler County Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart on Monday issued a sharply-toned warning to all election candidates, their committees and supporters that “there is a zero-tolerance policy from this point forward” regarding any violation of polling-site rules, whether it’s trespassing the 150-foot no-solicitation zone, approaching vehicles to peddle campaign literature, blocking traffic, using bullhorns or transgressing poll-watcher rules inside polling places in any way that could intimidate voters.
The zero-tolerance approach will be enforced by 39 poll deputies and on-call alternates assigned to early voting sites and the 24 polling places, or precincts, on Election Day, Nov. 3. That’s up from 25 deputies in 2016, clearly a signal that this year’s election is requiring more vigilance even though with the surge in mail balloting, fewer people are expected to vote in person. As of today, 14,307 Flagler residents, or 15.5 percent of eligible voters, had voted, already exceeding the total number of people who voted by mail in 2016 (13,423).
Poll deputies are deputized by the sheriff but are civilians, in civilian clothes, are not armed, are trained and paid by the Supervisor of Elections and are responsible for maintaining order at voting sites. On Election Day itself, 31 poll deputies will be deployed at voting sites, with more than one at some sites.
Lenhart said the email was prompted by voters “contacting our office to express their concern of potential voter intimidation ahead of this election,” itself the likely result in part of repeatedly aggressive messages to supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for election issues, “because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” he said near the end of the presidential debate with Joe Biden in September.
Locally, a Democratic Party rally in Palm Coast’s Town Center was the target of an obscenity-laced video and in-person intimidation by a Trump supporter in late September, drawing an explicit rebuke by Sheriff Rick Staly. Lenhart mentioned the incident and the sheriff’s subsequent cautions in her email to candidates. And for Lenhart, the primary had been an eye-opener.
“During the Primary Election, candidates and campaign workers repeatedly violated the no-solicitation zone at the Library during early voting,” she wrote. “They were reprimanded by myself, in person, and I followed up with an email to all candidates explaining the law. I also contacted Sheriff Staly and shared the law with him to make him aware, as his deputies do not enforce laws related to elections everyday. If we have a disturbance at any of our polling sites, Sheriff Staly encouraged me to contact the FCSO immediately. I intend to do so on the first issue related to polling place accessibility or voter intimidation. I’ll say that again for those in the back… there is a zero-tolerance policy from this point forward. We’re all adults and those of you involved in the Primary have been made aware of the law.”
In an interview, Lenhart said Flagler has not had a history of serious disruptions at election time and she did not expect it to start this year. Even during the mercurial years of former Elections Supervisor Kimberle Weeks, who could be personally abrasive and political in disputes she stirred all the way to the Canvassing Board, the election process itself remained sound and polling places safe but for the usual minor infractions. This year’s infractions have increased not just because Trump is himself encouraging disruption, but because Florida law changed in one significant regard: the no-solicitation zone has been expanded to 150 feet, making it somewhat difficult for candidates in some precincts, where properties are narrower, to campaign. Still, the concerns about early voting and Election Day disruptions locally persist.
“We have heard of these concerns, some people have reached out to me directly over concern of voter intimidation or the safety of voting. While we’re not going to release our contingency plans,” Staly said, “we’re going to do everything legally to ensure that all voting locations are safe and that they can exercise their constitutional right without intimidation.” Of the polling deputies he swore in, he said: “A polls deputy under the statute has the authority to maintain peace at a voting locations. While they have limited authority, they are in fact a deputy sheriff for the purposes of that polling site.”
But the sheriff is mindful of not wanting his own troops to seem intimidating, either, in essence countering a suggestion by the presidents that polling places teem with law enforcement. “We’re going to have everything,” Trump said in a Fox News interview in late August. “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to hopefully have U.S. attorneys and we’re going to have everybody, and attorney generals. But it’s very hard.” Federal law prohibits even the president from sending “armed men at any place where a general or special election is held,” unless polling sites are under attack by “enemies of the United States.”
“There is no doubt that this is about instilling fear and depressing participation in communities of color,” Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told the Washington Post.
Staly had been sensitive to the issue regardless of the president’s recent comments. “We’ll keep an eye on the voting locations but we do that as minimally and discreetly as we can because we don’t want a patrol car to be perceived as voter intimidation,” the sheriff said said, “so we’ll monitor it for traffic and disturbances but within reason, in other words we’re not going to station deputies in voting locations because in some parts of the county that could be perceived as voter intimidation.”
The focus in Flagler has been on candidates and their campaign volunteers. “The vast majority of our candidates and campaign workers have been extremely respectful and well-behaved during this election year. Kudos!!!” Lenhart wrote. “I do not expect to have to call the Sheriff’s Office, however, I certainly will not hesitate if or when needed. My first priority is ensuring the safety of voters and our election workers.”
Leaders of the Flagler Democratic and Republican parties are agreeing on very little but both applauded Lenhart’s approach. “Her email is exactly what I expected it to be and I’m glad that she’s taken a zero-tolerance approach,” Jearlyn Dennie, who heads the Republican Executive Committee, said today.
“We cannot tell you how happy we are about that” email, Mike Cocchiola, who heads the Flagler County Democratic Party, said.
“The REC as a whole we don’t believe in intimidation tactics but we are watching our polls, that’s a normal practice for us to have poll watchers and poll workers,” Dennie said. Is she worried about voter intimidation when early voting begins in Flagler next Monday? “From our group? From the REC? No. Am I worried about the other group? Yes,” she said of Democrats. “We’ve gone from our signs being damaged to being stolen.”
Cocchiola called Dennie’s charge disingenuous–and said he’d told her as much himself. “I’m not aware of any Democrats who have knocked down any signs. She’s being disingenuous. We have lost well over 200 to 300 signs that have been taken down or disrupted,” Cocchiola said, acts suggestive of potential intimidation ahead. “We put up four large signs, two of them were immediately defaced, one was smashed the other one was spray painted or inked in, ‘pedophile.’ So it’s disingenuous for Pastor J to make reference to the Democrats we have not touched a sign. Our people know what the rules are.” (Dennie is broadly known as Pastor J.)
But Cocchiola made a distinction between Republicans in general and what he called “Trumpies,” who are his principal concern. “We do have concerns because we do know there are a few outliers out there that are uncontrollable, and we know there were infractions, we watched them during the primary,” Cocchiola said, “not so much intimidation but just simply infractions of the rules. We are concerned about that.” He described “Trumpers” set up at the public library off Palm Coast Parkway, one of three early voting sites, where individuals from the group were chasing the cars and trying to hand out materials to them within the 150-foot barrier. “That bothered the heck out of us because that is voter intimidation,” Cocchiola said. “We are concerned about that kind of intimidation, that kind of aggressiveness.”
Ed Danko, a candidate for Palm Coast City Council and a spokesman for the Trump Club in Flagler, said “we have no plans to monitor the polls.” He said the group discussed it “a while ago and we decided we weren’t going to be involved.”