Armed men showed up at a St. Pete early voting site on Wednesday claiming to be with the Trump campaign.
Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus told WFLA that two men dressed as security guards set up a tent outside the polling location at 501 First Ave N., and told officers they were with the Trump campaign.
However, a spokesperson for the campaign told the station that the campaign did not hire the men, “nor did the campaign direct them to go to the voting location.”
After officers took down their information, the two individuals left the polling site, stating that they'd return on Thursday.
While speaking to the press on Thursday morning, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the pair was from the security company Syotos, out of Crestview, Florida. He also stated that there were no allegations of intimidation, just reports that “people didn’t like it.”
Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reached out to Syotos owner Trei McMullen, who claims one of his employees was there, but not in an official capacity.
We do not have any employees engaging in poll watching," McMullen wrote in an email to CL. "We had an off duty employee who was picking up a family member who happened to be in the vicinity of a polling location. The employee saw someone they knew near the polling location and had a short conversation. Again, this employee was off duty and was in no way engaging in poll watching. The employee was stoped by a local deputy that had every right to ask what was happening .The employee made it clear that they were not affiliated with the polling both. A change of information from the officer to the deputy happened and all information came back valid and true. The officer just had on their gear from leaving work and that was taken out of context."
McMullen did not specify why his off-duty employee told officers he was with the Trump campaign, or if his employee will in fact return Thursday.
While people have a 150-foot buffer from polling locations to advocate for candidates, it is a third-degree felony to bring a gun to a polling place in Florida. It's unclear how close the armed men were to the polling site.
Gualtieri told reporters that the two men did not violate the law, since the firearms were not brought into the building. He also stated that the has reversed his previous decision to not have officers placed at polling sites because they didn't "want people to feel intimidated or uncomfortable."
Gualtieri now says deputies will be stationed at all early voting sites until Nov. 2. "Deputies will be there as a resource and to be a calming presence so people know they do have unfettered, unrestricted, unintimidated access to those early voting sites," said Gualtieri. "I hope what it does is make people feel comfortable."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman responded to the incident Thursday morning in a tweet. "Voter intimidation will not be tolerated here," said Kriseman. "Please contact law enforcement if you witness any form of intimidation, including the presence of armed security guards. Voting in Pinellas County is safe. It always has been. We will ensure that remains the case."
The incident comes after President Donald Trump told his supporters at last month’s debate to watch the polls “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” said Trump, “Because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.”
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