The Minneapolis police union is facing a warning after recruiting retired cops to work as “poll challengers” in a “problem” area of the city at the request of an attorney for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
“Targeting anyone for a challenge based on being in a so-called ‘problem area’ is unlawful and will not be permitted in Minnesota’s polling places,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steven Simon said.
State law guarantees voters the right to a peaceful polling place free of harassment or intrusion, Simon said.
The police union put out a call earlier this week for retired officers to be stationed at polling sites in “problem” areas on Election Day, the Star Tribune reported Thursday. It was not immediately clear which areas the Trump campaign considered to be problems.
Union officials took the action following a request from Trump campaign attorney William Willingham, who was identified on the email as senior legal adviser and director of Election Day operations for the campaign, according to the newspaper.
Willingham asked Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, in an email Wednesday to recruit up to 30 former officers to serve as poll “challengers” who would work shifts in a “problem area.”
“Poll Challengers do not ‘stop’ people, per se, but act as our eyes and ears in the field and call our hotline to document fraud,” Willingham wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Star Tribune. He said the campaign was seeking people “who won’t be afraid in rough neighborhoods.”
A Trump campaign spokesperson denied that Willingham was instructed to make the request — but defended it. Thea McDonald confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press that the attorney is a volunteer for the campaign who “has been assisting in Minnesota.”
She added: “Retired police officers are members of their communities, and as such are well within their rights to participate and volunteer as rule-abiding poll watchers.”
The Republican National Committee was placed under 35 years of court supervision in the 1980s after a similar scheme of hiring off-duty law enforcement officers to patrol polling stations in communities of color in New Jersey. The RNC also sent sample ballots to the communities, then excised as many names as possible from returned ballots. The court supervision was lifted just two years ago.
The police move comes just days after Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison reached a settlement to block voter intimidation by Tennessee firm Atlas Aegis, which had been recruiting former military special operations personnel to stalk polling stations for a client it refused to identify. The settlement bars the company from any involvement in any security operation in the city until 2022.
Company chairman Anthony Caudle had said the armed guards were meant to “make sure that the antifas don’t try to destroy the election sites.”
Ellison said in a statement Thursday in response to the police union action, “Minnesota and federal law are clear: it is strictly illegal to intimidate or interfere with voters. I will not hesitate to enforce [the laws] to the fullest extent … to protect Minnesotans’ right to vote.”
Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison told the Star Tribune the “incredibly inappropriate” language in Williamson’s message indicated an intent to discourage voters in certain neighborhoods.
“To the extent that Bob Kroll wants to participate in a voter intimidation campaign, the city will take that very seriously,” Ellison said. “There’s the clear dog whistle of ‘rough area,’ and we need people who aren’t ‘easily intimidated,’ and people who aren’t scared.”
Minnesota law allows one poll challenger from each party per precinct. They can only challenge a voter’s eligibility “if and only if they have personal knowledge of that voter’s ineligibility.”
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