In his 25 years as LaGrange police chief, Lou Dekmar said he’s never given much thought to Election Day security. In fact, he’s never stationed an officer at a polling place.
“My feeling is absent a compelling reason for us to be there we shouldn’t be,” he said.
But with rumors of extremist groups seeking to sow chaos at the polls, and an electorate as divided as any in recent history, worst-case scenarios can no longer be ignored.
So, for the first time in his career, Dekmar has developed a plan in case of a disturbance or unrest Tuesday.
It’s a scenario facing sheriff’s offices and police departments nationwide, and an enhanced law enforcement presence is likely to be evident at some precincts. But for many minority voters, particularly in the South, the thought of more cops at polling places is itself troubling.
“It arguably might send a mixed message for Black voters who might be uncomfortable even if (police) are there to make it safer for Black voters,” said Adrienne Jones, a Morehouse College political science professor who has studied the history of voting rights and voter suppression. “The idea that police are being called might give people pause.”
Watching the watchers
Georgia law requires every sheriff to place at least one deputy at every voting site on Election Day, said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills.
“There is no opting out,” said Sillis, past president of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association. .
The statute dates back generations, said Terry Norris, executive director of the sheriffs' association. Norris sent out copies of the statute Thursday to all of Georgia’s sheriffs as a reminder.
He acknowledges that, for larger counties, maintaining a presence at every polling place is unrealistic.
Sills said he encourages his deputies to stay in the background, making their presence known only when spotting a clear violation of law or when asked to intercede by a precinct captain. Demonstrating any kind of partisanship, like the Miami police officer who showed up at an early voting station wearing a Trump 2020 face mask, is strictly forbidden, Sills said.
“They’re not supposed to be election supervisors,” he said. “They are there to keep order.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Jones said the period after the Civil War, into Reconstruction through passage of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, Black Georgians faced threats to their safety if they tried to vote. The police sometimes worked with the Ku Klux Klan and others to carry out suppression.
The Georgia NAACP is closely monitoring the situation, with members stationed in 100 communities across the state, said the group’s president, Rev. James Woodall.
He said the preemptive deployment of law enforcement at polling locations is “very, very problematic” and at minimum ignorant of the history of voter suppression in Georgia.
“We take it very seriously when there is possible voter intimidation from civilians or law enforcement,” said Woodall. “Voters should not be intimidated at the polling place by anyone.”
Woodall serves on the secretary of state’s bipartisan task force for safe, secure, and accessible elections and has brought up the issue of law enforcement at the polls with that group. He understands the concerns for safety in these tense times, but said it requires a delicate balance.
“I think we’ll be able to overcome those challenges,” he said. “It doesn’t change the fact though that voter intimidation is still happening in Georgia and we need to do everything in our power that doesn’t deter any voter from participating in the electoral process.”
Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said she also worries about “over-policing” on Tuesday.
“There is an understandable mistrust of police in Black and in immigrant communities,” she said. “Voting locations should be neutral. That’s why polling places aren’t at police stations. They are at community centers, schools, libraries.”
Still, she’s preparing for the worst on Election Day.
“We’re treating it like it’s a natural disaster, but it’s voting,” Cho said. “Most years, it’s usually a threat to scare people, but this year I think it’s a little bit different.”
A real threat?
So are the threats greater in 2020?
The potential certainly exists, with President Trump, who routinely questions the purity of election results, recruiting thousands of poll watchers. That alone is unprecedented in recent American history, and some far-right militia groups have said they will show up armed at polling sites.
The law allows for that in Michigan. In Georgia, firearms are prohibited within 500 feet of voting sites. Only six states, and the District of Columbia, ban them completely.
OathKeepers militia leader Stewart Rhodes has vowed his group, recognized as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups” in the country by the Southern Poverty Law Center, will have a significant presence at the polls protecting Trump voters.
But most of the threats are just that, said Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. His group has monitored activity in more than 500 Facebook groups, including since-closed QAnon sites.
The intent appears to be to inject fear into the broader population, Carusone said.
“It’s all about the post-election period for them,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies and government officials are remaining tight-lipped about their plans on Election Day. Some election supervisors say they will have law enforcement at the polls for the first time.
Janine Eveler, head of elections in Cobb County, acknowledges security has been a topic of greater concern this year. The Cobb sheriff’s office is working with all the city police departments to patrol precincts on Election Day, Eveler said.
“In a highly contentious, big election there’s always a lot of extraneous people at the polls,” she said. And that’s not only poll-watchers and advocacy groups – there are 100,000 more people registered in Cobb this year compared to 2016, she said.
Fulton sheriff’s spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said the office will assist local law enforcement agencies upon request throughout the county. Those requests would come from the Board of Elections, she said.
“It is definitely different than in the past,” said Atlanta police spokeswoman Chata Spikes, speaking about Election Day planning.
APD will dispatch wherever the county needs them, she said.
“We are talking with our state and local partners to make the necessary preparations,” Spikes said. “We are prepared for anything.”
Dekmar, the LaGrange police chief, said he’s hopeful his officers will not be called upon.
“You have the backdrop now of the increased scrutiny of police and the trust issue,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us in any way to contribute to a negative dialogue as it relates to policing and voting.”
Staff writer Chris Joyner contributed to this article.