Kalamazoo leaders outline voting security plans

Officials pledge thorough absentee vote count and protection from in-person voter intimidation.

Mail-in ballot fraud is extremely unlikely, but Kalamazoo officials warned the volume of absentee ballots means results won’t be final until after election day, and said police will be ready to break up any attempts to interfere with in-person voting.

Kalamazoo Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin, who hosted city and county officials in a pre-election press conference Wednesday, said citizens should be prepared for a delay in results due to the number of voters who took advantage of new rules allowing for easier absentee voting.

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Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow said of the more than 88,000 absentee ballots requested from county voters, more than 77 percent have been returned already. State officials gave local clerks permission to begin opening up the mailing envelopes on Monday, but Snow and Kalamazoo City Clerk Scott Borling said it will still be a time intensive task to tabulate them all.

The delay does not mean there’s anything wrong, however, especially claims of fraud espoused by President Donald Trump and other Republican Party leaders.

“Experts from both parties say it happens in less than one in a million cases,” Borling said.

The bigger concern is voter intimidation, to which Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) Chief Vernon Coakley said police are ready to respond.

“Voter interference or intimidation at polling stations will not be tolerated,” Coakley said. The plan – working directly with voting precinct leaders to quickly identify any problems and call in police, who will not be present at the polling sites – will result in an election “free of threats, intimidation, or fear.”

All officers will have body cameras activated ahead of any call. And other police in the county will be called in if necessary, he said. Police will be monitoring social media for talk of any local threats or urgent nationwide developments, he said.

The role of police in elections is sensitive, however. Critics of KDPS say it had too light of a presence during an Aug. 15 march by the Proud Boys gang and subsequent street brawls. Meanwhile, Trump has suggested police and armed vigilantes monitor polls – two groups that have histories of being used to disenfranchise voters

This is the first presidential election since a court ended the ban on the Republican Party’s poll watching activities, following a 1981 effort to intimidate voters by hiring off duty law enforcement to intimidate voters in Trenton, N.J. 

“We do not allow our officers to work off duty in any law enforcement capacity,” Coakley said when asked if there were any KDPS rules to prevent off duty police from participating in such election day activities.

A primary driver of record absentee ballots this election season is fears of contracting the coronavirus by in-person voting.

Snow said county precinct workers will have plenty of personal protective equipment, extra hand sanitizer, frequently clean booths, and use plexiglass screens between workers and voters.

All workers will be masked, but voters won’t be required to wear one – only requested – so as not to violate laws protecting voter access, both Snow and Borling said, adding that it’s also an exception in county and state health department regulations.

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