During the general election of 2018, a man threatened to shoot everyone at a South Franklin Township polling place after he was informed he was not registered to vote there or anywhere in Washington County.
Earlier this month, a Waynesburg councilwoman discussed with the election board her security concerns about voting precincts during the upcoming Nov. 3 election, noting people carried long guns across the street from the Greene County Courthouse during a Juneteenth anniversary marking the emancipation of slaves.
The potential for intimidation at the polls was addressed Friday during a Zoom teleconference with the media hosted by Pennsylvania’s Department of State.
“The state alone is not going to be able to secure the election without our local partners,” said Marcus L. Brown, Pennsylvania’s homeland security adviser and director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security since 2015.
“Our federal and local partners are in lockstep with us in securing this election.”
Brown is a Cumberland County native who was superintendent of the Maryland State Police before Gov. Tom Wolf appointed him to the homeland security post.
Brown, who spoke and took questions Friday after Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar fielded inquiries earlier in the week on the topic, said someone who feels unsafe or uncomfortable can first talk to the election board members at the polling location and then notify local law enforcement.
“Obviously, it’s a concerning situation if someone is ever feeling uncomfortable in their efforts to go and vote,” Brown said. “I think law enforcement across the state is prepared to respond to our polling places to ensure anyone showing up at any polling place feels safe.”
In years of preparation for the upcoming election, Brown said he and his office have coordinated with state police, the National Guard and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, plus local officeholders, election officials, emergency management and law enforcement.
They’ve strategized how to cope with scenarios that include not only voter intimidation, but weather, power outages and traffic congestion.
Although these circumstances might seem far-fetched, former Washington County elections director Larry Spahr found himself in a harrowing situation as the Monongahela River rose during torrential rain in what came to be known as the Election Day Flood of 1985.
Riverfront polls had to close, and voters couldn’t make their way through flooded streets as the river crested at 42.7 feet.
A panel of Washington County judges decided the affected Mon Valley precincts could be reopened for voting at a later date under what was labeled a “continuation” of the election, based on case law.
As to the South Franklin Township episode, the perpetrator entered a plea of no contest to a first-degree misdemeanor of making a terroristic threat in January 2019. He was sentenced to 3 to 23 months in the county jail and ordered to be evaluated for drug and alcohol abuse and mental health, complete all recommended treatments, and have no contact with members of the South Franklin election board.
In Greene County, Commission and Election Board Chairman Mike Belding suggested voters call 911 to report any issues.
Pennsylvania law requires constables or deputy constables to be present at each polling place “for the purpose of preserving the peace... at all elections.”
But not every municipality has an elected constable. Police officers are not to be within 100 feet of a poll, but they can respond if they are called due to a disturbance or intimidation.
Boockvar also reminded those who want to register to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election that Monday, Oct. 19, is the registration deadline. The state requires county elections offices to remain open until 5 p.m. that day to handle in-person registration and receive paper forms, but new voters and those who want to update their residence information can also go to the www.votespa.com website.
The last day to apply for a mail-in or civilian absentee ballot is Tuesday, Oct. 27, which is one week before Election Day.
The postal ballots, even when dropped off instead of mailed, must be placed in two envelopes: an inner security envelope and an outer envelope filled out with name, address, date and signature. In some counties, Boockvar said, voters are dropping off only ballots in the anonymous inner envelope. The outer envelope contains identifying information to make sure someone does not attempt to vote more than once, but the envelopes are separated to ensure ballot secrecy.