TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Video of armed security guards outside a St. Petersburg polling place spurred fears of voter intimidation on Wednesday. But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the two weren’t breaking the law and their presence alone is not considered threatening.
So what is considered voter intimidation in Florida?
“There’s really no reason to have guns at a polling place,” Hillsborough County voter Richard Minardi said.
After guns and guards scared some voters on Wednesday, Sheriff Gualtieri decided to place deputies at each polling site.
But now with the election just 11 days away, the Florida ACLU warns this reaction could compound voter intimidation – instead of combating it.
“Would you like to see deputies at polling sites?” investigative reporter Mahsa Saeidi asked.
“No, not really,” Minardi told us.
8 On Your Side spoke with voters about election security outside Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library on Friday.
“Voter intimidation, I think, would be more of a direct thing for an individual,” voter Anthony Fuentes said. “If they’re passively standing by, I don’t see any reason to be intimidated by it.”
So what is considered voter intimidation here?
Attorney David Singer has been studying Florida’s election laws for 18 years.
“Really what we’re talking about is anything that gets in the way between that voter and that voter casting a ballot,” Singer said.
Florida’s Voter Protection Act states, in part, that “a person may not…use force, violence, or intimidation” to compel or prevent someone from registering or voting, for example.
“Is staring at someone voter intimidation?” we asked him.
“It’s in the eye of the beholder, it depends what that person is wearing,” said Singer. “Are they brandishing a weapon? Have they made threatening comments before?”
While Florida bans groups from soliciting voters within 150 feet of the entrance of the polling site, Singer says, licensed security guards could be near polling sites legally.
Distance is not the deciding factor.
“That 150 feet doesn’t matter, if you’re intimidating someone or you’re trying to suppress someone’s vote, there’s no distance requirement for that,” Singer said.
He encourages voters to report threatening behavior to officials on-scene, whether it’s the elections supervisor, a poll watcher, or police.
We’re told voter intimidation is usually broken up at the scene.
But if you are convicted, it is a felony.
Police and prosecutors are serious about making sure everyone can cast their ballot — safely.
If you have a voting concern you’d like to share, email investigator Mahsa Saeidi at MSaeidi@WFLA.com.
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