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Carroll County official seeks more security at polls for 2020 to address election judges’ safety concerns

Confrontations at polling places and concerned election judges prompted Carroll County’s election director to request “more of a presence” of police at polls in the 2020 elections. But the county commissioners would not approve the request because it’s not included in the budget.

Carroll County employs nearly 700 election judges to operate 36 polling places, and some of those judges expressed concern for their safety during the 2018 election cycle, according to Katherine Berry, election director. She and Capt. Dave Stem of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office told the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday what it would cost to pay sheriff’s deputies for additional police presence for early voting and election days.

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“Sometimes our election judges feel as though they’re more like lame ducks, if you will," Berry said. She later clarified she meant to say “sitting ducks.”

Some polling places are inside school gymnasiums and cafeterias where there is only one entrance and exit, according to Berry.

During one recent election, a citizen became angry that their polling place had moved and threatened the election judges inside the precinct, Berry said. There have also been confrontations outside voting places when the Board of Elections got involved and called the police, she said, and some people stood outside polling places at night after they closed while judges counted votes inside the building.

Outside the meeting, Berry said election judges were also concerned by violent incidents they saw reported in the news. Berry did not know whether any election judges from 2018 chose not to serve in later elections for fear of their safety.

“Have we had any major showstopping incidents? No, but I also would like to think that we’re trying to be proactive in this,” Berry told the commissioners.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, recounted an incident he witnessed at a Mount Airy polling place during the 2018 primary election. Bouchat said a large, boisterous man was outside the polling place making his opinion known, and Mount Airy police responded.

“I don’t think he had bad intent, but when people are coming in to vote, it can be quite intimidating,” Bouchat said.

Currently, Sheriff’s Office deputies stop by polling places on election days when time allows during their regular patrol hours, Berry noted. In 2018, election judges had the choice to participate in active shooter training, Berry said.

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Hoping to expand upon this for the benefit of voters and election officials, Berry asked the commissioners to consider an added expense to the Sheriff’s Office budget. She suggested law enforcement officers rotate between two to five polling places each, an action that would require overtime pay.

“They wouldn’t be standing at a precinct, at the door or anything all day long, but it’s just to make more of a presence," Berry said. She noted the Board of Elections’ attorney would set guidelines for what officers should do at polling places.

Stem suggested the uniformed officers would serve as a deterrent, and a response to any incident would be quicker if an officer is already in place. Berry said the presence of an officer is not meant to intimidate voters.

Berry anticipates a 30% voter turnout rate for the primary election, which is April 28, and expects 80% for the general election in November.

Stem estimates it would cost between $12,000 and $17,000 in overtime pay to cover two early voting centers and 2020 polling places for the primary election. As for the general election, it would cost between $18,500 and $24,000 for three early voting centers plus the regular polling places. Altogether, police overtime could run between $30,500 and $41,000 total.

The cost varies because the amount could increase if an incident occurs elsewhere that officers would have to respond to, according to Stem.

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In making these calculations, Stem factored in using school resource officers, court security deputies, specialized units and patrol operations officers, in addition to deputies already scheduled to work. To patrol early voting centers, officers would have to be paid overtime because there aren’t extra personnel available, unlike on Election Day when the courthouse is closed, Stem said.

For the primary presidential election, the Sheriff’s Office would need additional funding to cover 102 hours of overtime, according to Stem. For the general election, the Sheriff’s Office would need funding for about 83 hours of overtime, Stem said.

Police overtime possible for general election

Commissioners searched for alternative options. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, was absent due to illness.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, asked if Stem and Berry had considered partnering with municipal police.

Berry noted there are few polling places located within municipal limits. Stem said it would be a “nightmare” to arrange how those officers would be reimbursed for their time and would require much coordination between the Sheriff’s Office and other police departments.

Rothstein also floated the idea of posting signs reminding people to call police if they see something amiss, or parking a police vehicle at a polling place. Berry said signs have been used previously.

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, suggested recruiting off-duty police officers to be election judges. Bouchat asked whether they could hire retired officers at each polling place.

Stem said Weaver’s idea could be a conflict of interest, considering deputies work under the sheriff, who is elected. The other commissioners batted away Bouchat’s suggestion, saying the cost would likely be comparable to paying overtime.

Weaver asked Berry if she had any extra room in the Board of Elections budget. Much of that budget is mandated by the state, Berry said, so there isn’t much leeway.

Roberta Windham, county administrator, noted the elections occur in different fiscal years. The primary election will be held in fiscal year 2020, while the general election will be in fiscal year 2021. The county’s 2021 budget has yet to be adopted, so the commissioners could plan for the additional cost, Windham suggested.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he’d rather wait for the budget planning process because the budget is “so tight” currently. Frazier expressed confidence in local police to respond quickly, should someone dial 911.

Stem noted he can only do so much to reduce response time. He can restrict leave, transfer school resource officers to patrol duty or put more officers on patrol, but “nothing is guaranteed,” he said.

Bouchat, Weaver and Rothstein ultimately agreed with Frazier. There was no vote, but the commissioners suggested Berry and Stem return with their request for the general election during the 2021 budget planning process.

The commissioners were scheduled to have a discussion on a proposal to repeal the county’s English language ordinance Thursday but postponed the action due to Wantz’s absence.

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