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Election protection coalition to put 2,000 volunteers on the ground in Pennsylvania

J.D. Prose, USA TODAY Network - PA State Capitol Bureau

A coalition of Pennsylvania election protection groups will have almost 2,000 volunteers on the ground on Tuesday to monitor polling places, and it will also be offering a hotline for voters to call if they experience any problems.  

“Our goal is to make sure that every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot this year,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, during a video press conference on Thursday.

Suzanne Almeida, the interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said the “well-trained, non-partisan volunteers” will serve as the voters’ “first line of defense” across the Keystone State in what is expected to be a tense and emotionally charged election.

Supporters of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face-off in Wilkes-Barre on Oct. 22. A coalition of groups said they will be in 16 Pennsylvania counties to make sure all voters are able to cast their ballots on Tuesday free of harassment and intimidation.

Almeida said the number of volunteers is about four times the amount that worked the mid-term elections in 2018. The toll-free hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, is staffed by lawyers trained in election law and is already operational, she said.

The hotline was averaging about 1,000 calls per day earlier this week, but it still handled 750 calls on Wednesday, Almeida said. A coalition statement said most of the questions from voters concerned mail-in ballots.

“Pennsylvania voters are engaged,” she said. “They are asking the right questions and we are working to provide those answers for them.”

Salewa Ogunmefun, the civic engagement and political manager for the Center for Popular Democracy, said there are 26 organizations involved in her group’s voter guardian program that will be focused on 16 counties in Pennsylvania.

Ogunmefun said the signs of voter intimidation can range from openly aggressive behavior taking photos or video of voters in line to displaying weapons to confronting voters and demanding unnecessary documents from them.

Of particular concern is the prospect that armed groups will flock to polling places to intimidate voters.

“If it happens, it’s so not normal,” said Erin Kramer, the executive director of One Pennsylvania, who said the mere consideration that armed groups could threaten voters “is sort of a signal of where we are in our democracy.”

A recent report, titled “Standing By: Right-Wing Militia Groups and the US Election,” by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and MilitiaWatch warned about potential armed group activities leading up to and following the election.

Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Oregon were deemed states with a high risk of armed group activity, especially in state capitals and surrounding towns, medium-sized cities and suburban areas.

“Militia groups and other armed non-state actors pose a serious threat to the safety and security of American voters,” the report said. “Throughout the summer and leading up to the general election, these groups have become more assertive, with activities ranging from intervening in protests to organizing kidnapping plots targeting elected officials.”

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Kramer said the 2,000 volunteers are being trained to de-escalate tense situations and ask visitors to leave if they do not belong at a polling place. Additional steps will be taken, including contacting the lawyers on the hotline, if a situation persists, she said.

Witold, who is based in Pittsburgh, said he has been “overwhelmed” by the concern from law enforcement and election officials on voter security. “Everybody is taking this very seriously,” he said.

Any group that wants to intimidate voters will not have much leeway, Witold predicted, saying that attempts to harass voters “will be shut down by the authorities.”

J.D. Prose writes for the USA Today Network -- Pennsylvania State Capitol Bureau. He can be reached at jprose@gannett.com or @jdprose on Twitter.