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Security at polls tightens as election tensions rise
Law enforcement, election officials on alert after contentious campaign
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Mark Stephens with the Hall County Marshal's Office keeps the line moving Friday during early voting at the Hall County Government Center in Gainesville. Local law enforcement agencies are planning to step up patrols at polling sites this Election Day as a proactive response to concerns about violence. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Local law enforcement agencies are stepping up patrols at polling sites on Election Day as a proactive response to concerns about violence.

No threats of violence have been reported in Hall County, but Gainesville police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said it’s not wise to take chances.

“We don’t expect any issues, but we are bringing in additional officers from all divisions,” he said.

Politically motivated violence has reared its ugly head in several new and unique ways during the presidential campaign between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. For example, a firebombing of a Republican Party headquarters in North Carolina last month and physical conflicts between supporters and the media at Trump rallies in the spring and summer have characterized the growing partisanship and animosity stirred by an election with no clear favorites.

In response, some school districts across the country that serve as voting locations plan to close for the day. And some county elections boards have instituted active-shooter training for poll workers.

It’s all in the name of safety as fears of violence grow as Election Day gets closer. 

Hall County GOP chairwoman Debra Pilgrim said the party’s executive committee and Republican members of the county elections board are confident they can quickly identify anything that is amiss. But she acknowledges these fears have been like an elephant in the room recently.

“It’s a discussion that started a few months back about how this would play out,” she said. “I do feel everyone is taking extra measures this election, because it has been contentious. There’s a lot of anger out there. Everyone is on high alert.”

Hall County Democratic Party chairwoman Sheila Nicholas said there is a lot of unease and uncertainty about what might happen on Election Day given the violence seen at political rallies and rhetoric from candidates about the prospect of voter fraud and election rigging.

“We just don’t know,’” she said. “It’s scary.”

Nicholas said the tires on her car were slashed this week, so she removed a Clinton bumper sticker as a precaution against future vandalism.

Kim Copeland, a Democratic member of the Hall elections board, said brief, informal talks about stepping up patrols of voter precincts have occurred.

And there are reports of plain-clothes and off-duty officers monitoring activity at some polling sites.

Ken Cochran, a Republican member of the Hall elections board, said extra training has been given to poll workers this year to deal with hostility, accusations of fraud and the potential for voter intimidation.

“We are aware of the concerns out there,” he said, adding the elections staff maintains a close working relationship with the Marshal’s Office, which provides security and protects against illegal activities such as campaigning at the ballot box.

For example, a voter waiting in line to cast a ballot Friday afternoon at the Hall County Government Center in Gainesville could be heard chanting Trump’s name.

“Knock it off,” a Marshal’s officer said, putting an end to it. 

One scenario Holbrook said law enforcement doesn’t want to take for granted is the prospect of snarling traffic and long lines at polling sites that might exacerbate tensions between partisan voters.

Traffic control is something Cochran said he anticipates could stir trouble.

“We don’t need a Trump and a Hillary supporter butting heads over an accident,” he added.