ACLU of Virginia Asks County to Halt Plan for Armed, Uniformed Police at Polling Places

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
October 21, 2004 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Civil Liberties Group Says Police Presence May Keep Voters From Polls

CHESTERFIELD, VA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today asked the Chesterfield County registrar to cancel a plan to post armed, uniformed police officers at the county’s 62 polling places on Election Day. The ACLU said that the police presence is a reminder of when armed government officials were used to prevent minorities from voting and will only intimidate many potential voters, causing them to avoid the polls.

“While we all appreciate the work of the police, we also tend to be intimidated by them,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “If we don’t have to turn our polling places into armed guardhouses, we shouldn’t. There are many ways to secure the polls without posting police officers out front.”

In a letter to Chesterfield County registrar Lawrence C. Haake, III, Willis points to directives from both the Virginia Board of Elections and the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, which advise local election officials to balance security concerns and voter access. Willis also provides recommendations for counties on how to secure polls without having to station officers outside polling places.

Among the recommendations, are:

  • Increase the number of officers on duty and instruct them to pay close attention to polling places during their patrols.
  • Train poll workers to be more observant to possible terrorist threats.
  • Create emergency communication lines between police and poll personnel.
  • Draw up contingency plans for moving polling places on short notice.

“If procedures such as these are put in place for Election Day, our polls will be made as secure as they reasonably can be, and we will avoid the intimidating presence–and ominous symbol–of armed guards at the polls,” Willis said.

According to the ACLU, other municipalities, including Fairfax County, have specifically rejected the presence of uniformed officers because of the potential for voter intimidation, instead favoring a variety of less obtrusive ways to maintain security.

A copy of Willis’s letter follows.

October 21, 2004

RE: Police Presence at Chesterfield Polling Places

Dear Mr. Haake: It is my understanding that, at your request, Chesterfield County will post armed, uniformed police officers at each of its 62 polling places on Election Day. I am writing to urge you not to do this, as it may have the unintended effect of suppressing voter turnout. Further, it is not likely to make polling places any safer than other, less obtrusive security measures that could be instituted.

As I am sure you know, not too many years ago armed officers and other government officials mustered throughout the South to prevent minorities from registering and voting. The ACLU of Virginia believes that the unnecessary posting of police personnel at polling places, which for many will dredge up memories of this ignoble and frightening past, is likely to turn voters away from the polls.

The U.S. Office of Homeland Security and the Virginia Board of Elections have asked registrars to be mindful of the threat of terrorism, but to make plans for Election Day that carefully balance voter access and the need for security. Fairfax County responded to this request by announcing that it would initiate a series of unseen measures to ensure security at the polls, but that it would not enhance police presence at the polls because of its potential for intimidating voters.

In these difficult times, it is surely wise to bolster security on Election Day. You may want to increase the number of officers on duty and to have those officers pay close attention to polling places during their patrols. You may wish to train poll workers to be more observant as to possible terrorist threats. You may wish to create emergency communication lines between police and poll personnel. Some registrars have even suggested drawing up plans for moving polling places on short notice. If procedures such as these are put in place for Election Day, our polls will be made as secure as they reasonably can be, and we will avoid the intimidating presence–and ominous symbol–of armed guards at the polls.

I thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

Kent Willis

Executive Director

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