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Pima County Struggles As Voters Feel Intimidated By Partisan 'Poll Watchers,' Law Enforcement

Published: Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 2:59pm
Updated: Friday, October 30, 2020 - 12:17pm
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LAUREN GILGER: Early voting has proven to a popular option for a lot of Arizonans. But in Pima County, it's also led to a debate of sorts over who should and should not be allowed near the polls. Tucson officials have told the Pima County recorder that she can no longer hire off-duty Tucson police officers to provide security at the polls. That decision did not sit well with the recorder. Justin Sayers has been following this story. He's the local government reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, and he spoke with our co-host, Mark Brodie.

JUSTIN SAYERS: What the Pima County Recorder, F. Ann Rodriguez, had indicated is that they had heard some concerns from the poll workers — volunteers who offered their time to help count the ballots and help shuffle people through these early voting sites. As she said, they were just hired to pass out a ballot. And obviously it's a very politically-charged climate right now. There've been directions from the president of the United States to watch at the polls. And what Pima County had seen already in some of these people coming down, per her, to a couple of the early voting sites and setting up lawn chairs, bothering people after they voting. A and they're outside of the 75-foot limit of political campaigning. So they were allowed to be there. So basically, she felt the need to protect the safety of the volunteers and basically not force them to do something they did not sign up to do and de-escalate situations in hiring these police officers. She hired officers from every jurisdiction in Pima County and they basically, in the first couple days did not need that much involvement, but they were needed. There was a problem with long lines at one of the Oro Valley sites, and they had Oro Valley Police help out with that.

MARK BRODIE: So it sounds like the officers, by and large, were doing like crowd control kind of things. Is that right?

SAYERS: Exactly. Yes. Crowd control — basically, "we're here if you need us."

BRODIE: So Tucson's mayor was not thrilled about this and told the Pima County recorder to stop using off-duty TPD officers. What was over Regina Romero's rationale for doing that?

SAYERS: Yeah, so there was a letter that was sent to elected officials. So it was sent to, you know, Pima County. It was sent to Tucson. And the letter brought up complaints of, you know, people who went to vote who felt that the presence of officers was voter intimidation. So Mayor Romero, in conjunction with the police chief and the city manager, you know, made the decision that they didn't feel it was right to have police officers who are in uniform at polling places, because for some people, that is a form of intimidation.

BRODIE: So it seems as though you have sort of two competing issues here. You have, quote unquote, "poll watchers" who could be accused of intimidation. And then you have police officers who other voters are saying are making them feel intimidated. What are public officials in Pima County and in Tucson saying about this? And how are they trying to get around that and try to reduce the levels of intimidation on all sides?

SAYERS: Yeah, no, for sure. I think it's definitely, you know, an interesting debate and it brings up people's opinions. We're already in this politically-charged climate. I think the debate is over what's more intimidating: A police officer being there or, you know, somebody who is intimidating a voter being there. I think that's what the decision's ultimately coming down to. I will say the Pima County administrator, Chuck Huckelberry, put out a, you know, memo kind of looking at the situation and offering his opinion. You know, a couple days ago, just after, you know, everything happened, who basically said, you know, it's up to the Pima County recorder to conduct early voting, how she feels fit. That's part of her role.

BRODIE: Were there actually complaints about these off-duty Tucson police officers around polling sites?

SAYERS: Yes, there actually had been a couple letters that had been sent to elected officials, both in Pima County and Tucson, you know, making them aware that there had been concerns of voters who felt that, you know, the presence of law enforcement and private security is a form of voter intimidation in their opinions. Pima County Recorder received a copy of that letter and her office did. She felt, you know, that the feedback I've been hearing, she said, has been overwhelmingly positive. But on the contrary, you know, the city of Tucson and their police chief and city manager, they, they were more receptive to that complaint. And that's why they made the decision. They've all acknowledged that it was a joint decision. It wasn't just the mayor.

BRODIE: So if off-duty Tucson police officers are no longer at these polling sites, is there any kind of security there?

SAYERS: Yeah. So, again, they had already contracted with other police jurisdictions, pretty much every single police jurisdiction in Pima County. So what they're going to do, the solution, and it's already been negotiated is those sites where there are no longer going to be Tucson police officers, they're going to be replaced by the Pima County Sheriff's Department instead. And that brings up another debate of that the Tucson police chief, Chris Magnus, pointed out on Twitter is that now instead of a Tucson police officer, you're going to have an officer who works for a partisan, elected official. So, you know, I'm sure we're probably not done with this now.

BRODIE: Well, it also kind of raises the question. Like, you're basically replacing one type of law enforcement officer with another. Like, what's the difference?

SAYERS: Yeah, and I think my colleague, Tim Steller, who's our columnist, I think he pointed that out. You know, he kind of delved into the idea of, is having somebody who is there, who is making endorsements. You know, the Tucson Police Officers Association has endorsed Donald Trump. You know, is them being there just in general, a nonpartisan undercover security act, or is that a form of voter intimidation?

BRODIE: Are the Tucson officials okay with this arrangement, like is the mayor and the city manager, are they OK with having sheriff's deputies there?

SAYERS: They haven't pushed back on it so far. The arrangement with the Pima County Sheriff's Department was pretty much a — in motion, you know, within an hour of the Tucson police officers being removed. As far as we've seen, what we've heard, there hasn't been pushback yet.

BRODIE: All right. That is Justin Sayers, local government reporter with the Arizona Daily Star. Justin, thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.

SAYERS: No problem. Thank you for having me.

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