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Will Law And Order Need To Be Enforced During Election Day Polling?


November 3 promises to be an Election Day like no other. Never have we had such an abrupt shift in how people cast their votes in this country with the move toward mail-in ballots and early voting, and rarely have so many people cast doubt about the legitimacy of the process, including the president. That's a recipe for tension or even worse, which is why we're talking today to two of our reporters covering all this, Martin Kaste and Tom Bowman. And we're going to talk about law and order on Election Day. Thanks to you both for being here.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.


MARTIN: So, Martin, I want to start with you. You cover law enforcement. Are police taking measures to protect polling places?

KASTE: Well, not directly. By tradition and usually state law, the presence of uniformed police right at the polling places is actually discouraged for fear of the impression of voter intimidation. So usually it falls on poll workers to handle sort of some kind of dispute or something at first. You might also see some private security guards. Some places are even hiring security guards to guard these drop boxes for ballots that traditionally have been just left unattended.

But this question about uniformed police is becoming contentious in a few places around the country. North Carolina, for instance, there was sort of a partisan squabble there a couple of weeks ago about the fact that the elections board put out orientation to police saying, you know, no uniformed police at the polling stations. But then Republican, state Republicans, complained, saying, wait a minute - we need public safety here, and you can't tell the police what to do; you're the elections board.

And I talked to a Republican state senator there named Paul Newton about this. And he said he understood and respected the idea that some voters might feel intimidated by the police, but he also said, you know, now in this age of absentee voting, those voters have more options.

MARTIN: OK. But if there is a serious incident at a polling place, police can still get in there to manage that, right?

KASTE: Oh, for sure. If the police are called, they come to help, if something is more serious. And this may come up - especially this year, there have been some concerns rising around the country about private citizens who may try to intimidate or just be perceived as intimidating other fellow voters, especially if they show up armed. In lots of the country, you know, open carry is legal. But we've already had some reports of people being disturbed by the sight of armed people near a polling place.

So, for example, in Michigan, where there is an open carry permission in general, the secretary of state has said that, during the election season now, open carry and guns will not be allowed at election sites. But they're also - someone has filed a lawsuit saying, no, the secretary of state doesn't have that authority. So even in Michigan right now, it's not 100% clear if Michigan voters will be seeing armed private citizens near the polling places.

MARTIN: Martin, what about cities that have just seen a lot of unrest this year? Are police departments anticipating trouble thinking, focusing on those places?

KASTE: For sure. I mean, big-city police departments are already preparing to have more officers available in the event of unrest. And they're certainly thinking ahead toward that possibility, given what's happened all year long. You know, for example, the New York Police Department is making sure there's some extra crowd control training available for officers. LAPD is limiting time off.

And then you have Chicago. It's one of the cities that saw a lot of looting this summer. And the police superintendent there, David Brown, says that he thinks a lot of that looting was coordinated by people - agitators, he calls them - embedded among legitimate protesters. And he said he wasn't going to let that happen again on Election Day.

MARTIN: So that is the law enforcement side of all of this. Let's switch over to the military, which is what you cover, Tom. What kind of preparations are the military making when it comes to security around the election?

BOWMAN: Well, Rachel, the National Guard is taking part in cybersecurity. The polls focus on hacking by foreign governments, as we saw recently with Russia and Iran. But the Guard is not planning on getting involved in physical security at the polls, leaving that up to civilian poll workers and, as Martin pointed out, the police if necessary. Now, a number of states expect to use their Guard as poll workers, dressed in civilian clothes, and they would fill in for those polling places that lack workers - mostly, of course, because of the coronavirus.

So these Guard members - again, in civilian clothes - would set up tables, hand out ballots, just like any poll workers. Now, we're seeing planning for this already in Wisconsin, which is having a surge of positive virus cases, as well as Kentucky. Many poll workers tend to be older, more susceptible to the virus. So that's why the Guard will have to step up in some places around the country.

MARTIN: Tom, if we can just talk through some scenarios - if there is violence or even if there are just mass protests, can President Trump order the military to intervene?

BOWMAN: Well, there is a concern among national security officials that after the election, no matter who wins, there could be violence. As far as serious problems during the voting, a large protest or massive violence, is seen as unlikely. Now, if that happens, a governor could call out the Guard since the Guard comes under the control of each governor. Now, the president could also federalize the Guard, meaning he takes control from the governor. And that's very rare and happened a couple of times in the past, during the school integration episodes of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to make sure Black children could get to school safely.

The president could also invoke the Insurrection Act, and that way he could send active duty troops in to control a situation. But Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said that's not a good idea and favors using the Guard for any such problem since, of course, Guard soldiers come from the community. Overall, Rachel, the military, again, would prefer to stay out of any political or security situation.

MARTIN: This election is exceptional for so many reasons. It is, as a result, worth considering a truly exceptional situation. What if President Trump doesn't accept a loss, as he has suggested in the past?

BOWMAN: No, that issue keeps coming up, mostly because the president said he's concerned about this being a fair election. So what will he say if he loses or if the election is contested? And what happens if he tells his supporters the election was a hoax? Should it come to that, there are procedures, and the military has no role through either the Constitution or by law. And the top military officer, General Mark Milley, talked about this in a recent interview with Steve Inskeep.


MARK MILLEY: This isn't the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election. And if there is, it'll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the U.S. Congress. There's no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election - zero. There is no role there.

BOWMAN: So, again, Rachel, the military sees no role during the vote or after. And they hope any unrest can be handled by the police.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Bowman - he covers the Pentagon - and NPR's Martin Kaste, who covers law enforcement. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.