BOSTON — A group of Democratic lawmakers want cities and towns to send extra police to the polls this November, while at the same time keeping out sheriffs and state police.
Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, said the bill was prompted by comments last week by President Donald Trump, who vowed to dispatch law enforcement to the polls to guard against voter fraud. In an interview last Thursday on Fox News, Trump said he plans to enlist local sheriffs and U.S. attorneys to monitor the vote.
Straus, one of the bill's primary sponsors, said it seeks to "clarify the lines of authority" and make clear that state agencies and county sheriffs “do not have an Election Day security role.”
State law requires "one or more" local police officers to be posted at election sites for security, though they are prohibited from entering polling areas unless asked by an election clerk. Straus' bill would allow more local police officers to be posted but would prevent state and county law enforcement from coming within 300 feet of a polling station, unless approved by state and local officials.
"They should not, on their own, be sending personnel to polling places,” he said.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who is chairman of Trump's reelection campaign in Massachusetts, called the proposal "outrageous" and said it jeopardizes public safety.
"This will diminish the ability of law enforcement to keep people safe as they exercise one of their most sacred rights," he said. "We've been voting for years without any problems. Why is this suddenly an issue?"
Hodgson said he hasn't been asked by Trump's campaign to make deputies available to monitor election sites, but he said preventing them from entering polling areas without state and local authorization could endanger the public.
"God forbid there's a problem at a polling place, and we have to wait to get approval before going in to prevent someone from being injured or killed," he said.
It’s not clear that Trump has the authority to dispatch law enforcement to the polls in the first place. Federal law bars officials from sending troops or armed police to watch local elections, and only local officials have the authority to deploy local police.
But his vows prompted a warning from the state's top law enforcement official against election interference by anyone, civilian or police.
"Poll watchers may observe polling place operations but under no circumstances can they intimidate, threaten, coerce or otherwise interfere with your right to cast your ballot," Attorney General Maura Healey wrote in the advisory.
Voting rights groups say there’s no recent history of violence at the polls in Massachusetts, so there's no need for deploying law enforcement.
"The bottom line is that elections are a local activity, and should be controlled by local officials," said Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group which hasn't taken a formal position on the bill. "There is no role for the state police or sheriffs in elections, period.”
Like a majority of states, Massachusetts allows political parties to use poll watchers as election monitors, but they are prohibited from acting in a manner that could be considered intimidating.
The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division also deploys observers to the polls in some states, including Massachusetts, to watch for voter intimidation.
Trump's campaign warns that a Republican victory in November could be imperiled by widespread voter fraud. Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee announced plans to recruit up to 50,000 volunteers to monitor polls in 15 states and challenge ballots and voters deemed suspicious.
To be sure, Trump made similar calls for volunteer poll watchers ahead of the 2016 election, but little came of it.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.