Some voters in Greenville may have to “walk the gauntlet” past representatives of candidates who are allowed by state law to greet voters on their way into their polling place on Election Day.
And in an election year where many expect to see attempts to intimidate or cajole voters on their way into the polls, local election officials have instructed poll workers to keep an eye out for those standing outside of precincts talking to voters who are waiting to cast their ballot to make sure they behave.
Anyone can campaign on Election Day outside of 200 feet of a polling place. They can hold signs or hand out material.
But representatives of candidates may also campaign within 200 feet though they can’t wear anything related to a candidate or party and can’t hand out materials, said Conway Belangia, director of Greenville County voter registration and elections.
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“Voters don’t like that,” Belangia said. “Voters want them gone. They don’t like them right outside their door trying to solicit their vote. It’s a fine line between solicitation and intimidation.”
And in an election year where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to turn out in droves to watch for Election Day shenanigans, voters may see more politicking at the polls this year than in the past.
“You might have to walk the gauntlet,” Belangia said.
But it’s allowed and it has taken place in races in recent local races, he said.
The practice tends to raise the rancor of voters who want a chance to breathe as they get ready to cast their ballot, he said.
“That’s when intimidation becomes an issue,” he said. “If we have a number of voters complain about them intimidating them outside, we move them.”
As long as representatives maintain decorum, don’t display materials and don’t block the path toward the polling place doors, they’re allowed to stay, he said. But if poll workers have issues with anyone campaigning outside the polling place, they will make all of them move beyond 200 feet away from the polling site, he said.
Whether the practice will take place at Greenville polling sites or if it even makes a difference is a matter for debate.
Nate Leupp, first vice chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party, said politicking outside a polling place does more harm than good because voters either find it annoying or believe it’s illegal.
“My personal experience when I’ve been asked to do it is I just don’t think it helps the candidate,” Leupp said.
The possible exception, he said, is for local candidates themselves who can meet voters, many who may not know or have met the candidates.
“If someone goes to vote on Election Day and hasn’t made their mind up whether they’re voting for the Democrat, Republican or any other candidate for president, I’d be shocked,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t know the other races.”
Inside a polling site, state law allows candidates and county political parties to appoint poll watchers to observe.
Leupp said he’s seen more interest across the board about the security of the election.
That hasn’t necessarily translated into more interest in poll watchers though. The Greenville County Republican Party expects to post 25-30 poll watchers at various sites on Election Day, he said. But Greenville County alone has 151 polling sites.
Interest from the Greenville County Democratic Party is high as well and a team is coordinating poll watchers for 30-40 precincts, said Kate Franch, GCDP chairwoman.
Poll watchers must be registered voters in the county, attend a training session (the GOP session is next Tuesday, the GCDP has several sessions scheduled) and receive a signed form from the local party chair certifying them as a poll watcher. They must turn that form in to a poll worker on Election Day.
The clerk at each polling site will designate a space inside a poll for watchers to observe. The watchers must wear a badge that identifies them as a poll watcher and which party they represent. They can’t campaign or hold conversations with voters and they can’t have laptops or tablets or use cell phones while observing, Belangia said.
“We don’t want anyone to think that they’re sitting over here stealing votes,” he said. “It’s just perception.”
If watchers notice something that appears to be wrong, they should call their local party leadership, he said.
“There are some precincts that historically have had some concerns about what’s going on, so we will, of course, sit them there,” Franch said.
Leupp said there are also sites that the Greenville County Republicans worry about though he and Franch each said Belangia trains his poll workers well and tends to run a tight ship.
But in an unprecedented election where a major candidate has spoken for months about the election being rigged against him by “the Clinton machine,” Leupp said average Republicans are concerned about potential fraud.
“With Donald Trump talking about the possibility of Election Day shenanigans, more people have questioned it this year than I think in former years,” he said.
Trump and running mate Mike Pence have each called for supporters to monitor polling sites to watch for voter fraud.
Trump has sent out emails asking supporters to sign up as official poll watchers and has a form on his website for those interested to sign up.
Pence said this month that supporters haven’t done all they can to ensure against voter fraud until they’ve signed up to watch a polling site on Election Day.
But some supporters likely hear the words about watching polls and take it to mean they can just show up and hang out to watch what happens.
One group with an Upstate chapter, the Oath Keepers, which is a nationwide conspiracy-minded group of current and former military, law enforcement and first responders who vow to protect the U.S. Constitution at all costs, has called for its members to show up incognito on Election Day to videotape and observe against “the enemies of liberty” who have been “working overtime to disenfranchise millions of Americans in the upcoming general election.”
Now the Democrat National Convention has filed a lawsuit against the Republican National Convention because of Trump’s voter fraud suggestions and calls for vigilante “poll watchers” in “certain areas,” which it says are largely minority locations.
“You’ve got to get everybody to go out and watch…and when (I) say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about, right?” Trump said, according to the lawsuit.
This week, Acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake for the District of South Carolina said two attorneys in her office would coordinate a program on Election Day to oversee complaints of election fraud and voting rights abuses.
“Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have that vote counted without it being stolen because of fraud,” Drake said.
Federal law protects voters from acts that intimidate or harass them, including actions to interrupt or intimidate voters at polling places by questioning or challenging them, or by photographing or videotaping them under the pretext of trying to uncover illegal voting, she said.
Oath Keepers’ founder and president, Stephen Rhodes, called for members to carry cameras, cell phones and notebooks to watch the polls. He claims the group has 30,000 members though that figure is “wildly exaggerated,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks anti-government militia groups and hate groups.
The Oath Keepers call to action is the first organized response to Trump’s frequent calls for “patriots” to watch for fraud, Potok said.
“The Oath Keepers have a history of provocative actions in which they are typically walking around armed with heavy weapons,” Potok said.
Potok said he couldn’t predict what the response would be from the militia group or others who have groused online about the election being “stolen,” but he called it a worrying situation.
“I think there is a real potential for violence,” Potok said. “Obviously I can’t predict anything, but Donald Trump has been telling his followers for weeks and weeks that they’re about to have the election stolen from them by a series of evil conspirators, and those people are angry.”
A USATODAY/Suffolk University poll released Wednesday found 51 percent of likely voters expressed some concern over Election Day violence and 1 in 5 were very concerned.
Those concerns have translated locally as well.
“There’s an unknown factor this year, maybe more than has been,” Franch said. “What I’m hearing is more from voters who are saying they’re concerned that something might be happening and they want reassurance.”
Leupp said the local Republican party won’t tolerate harassment or intimidation from anyone, including Trump supporters.
“I would hope that all of the supporters of both the Republican and Democratic side in Greenville County understand that that’s not called for,” he said.