Calls for armed military veterans combined with a volunteer "Army for Trump" to descend on Minnesota polling places have created fresh anxieties for state law enforcement and elections officials already preparing for a major election in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cybersecurity and the coronavirus pandemic dominated preparations for the vote this year, but state and federal officials are now closely monitoring new reports of one private security contractor advertising jobs that would illegally dispatch armed guards at Minnesota polling places, and another that planned to provide ex-military personnel for private companies in the event of postelection rioting.
Adding to those concerns, the Trump campaign has vowed to raise a 50,000-plus army of volunteer observers across an array of battleground states to monitor the voting. Raising fears of elections he says will be rigged, President Donald Trump, trailing in polls in Minnesota and other key battleground states, has called on his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen."
Minnesota GOP officials say roughly 3,000 people have signed up so far and will get training on state election laws, which forbid campaign workers to interact directly with voters.
"The actual running of the election is coming along OK but that doesn't mean that some of the reporting and messaging and things that have come out have not been alarming," said Attorney General Keith Ellison, adding that he believes the prospect of armed guards at the polls could be a voter suppression tactic.
Officials like Ellison and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon are on high alert after Atlas Aegis, a Tennessee-based company, posted a job listing earlier this month that called for "security positions in Minnesota during the November Election and beyond to protect election polls, local businesses and residences from looting and destruction." The listing sought U.S. special operations forces veterans to guard against "Antifas" intent on "destroying the election sites."
Ellison has opened an inquiry into the company's operations in Minnesota.
Atlas Aegis is not licensed to provide security in Minnesota, according to Richard Hodsdon, chairman of the Minnesota Board of Private Detective and Protective Agent Services, a state regulatory board. Hodsdon said that Atlas Aegis told the board this month that it was recruiting on behalf of a licensed company in Minnesota, but he said that it declined to provide a name to the board. Atlas Aegis did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Fears of more civil unrest in Minneapolis tied to the election were also underlying a separate job listing advertised last month by a Miami-based company called 5326 Consultants, Inc. The effort has since reportedly been abandoned.
But according to an e-mail obtained by the Star Tribune, the company initially sought 75 ex-military personnel for a private security job in Minnesota, "most likely Minneapolis," for up to a week after the election.
Rodney Brown, CEO of 5326 Consultants, wrote that applicants would need to provide a rifle and pistol, plus body armor. There were no concerns about concealing their firearms from view while on the job.
"It's Overt because we are goddamned gunslingers and we want [people] to know we mean business," Brown wrote.
Brown assured in an e-mail that "there are solid rules of engagement and partnership protocol ironed out with local [law enforcement agencies]."
But Hodsdon said that he had not seen any "official evidence anywhere in the state of Minnesota that corroborates that they are coordinating with any elections officials or any public safety entity."
In response to the Atlas Aegis initiative, which was challenged in court Tuesday by two civil rights groups, state officials are reminding all licensed security companies in the state about Minnesota laws on polling place activity. Hodsdon said businesses can hire private security in anticipation of unrest so long as the security does not interfere with polling places or otherwise violate state election laws.
Minnesota law also does not permit "poll watchers," instead allowing for so-called challengers to be at polling places. Only one challenger is permitted on behalf of each political party per precinct, and the challenger must be a registered voter and state resident. Meanwhile, under the law, no one can campaign within 100 feet of a polling place.
Law enforcement of any kind also cannot be stationed near polling places unless called by election workers for help.
Questions about poll watchers have been given new urgency since Trump called on supporters to volunteer to serve as polling place observers around the country. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have set a target of 50,000 people for an "Army for Trump" across battleground states.
Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the Trump campaign's "election protection team" is "putting forward a full-blown effort in ways, honestly, we probably haven't seen on the Republican side in this state for a very long time."
Carnahan said the party has signed up more than 3,000 volunteers statewide to help with such efforts and have been training volunteers on the state's election laws.
Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Democrats have "always had a very robust voter protection program." But the surge in GOP activity on that front, Martin said, is new this election.
Some cities, like Minneapolis, have opted to hire "sergeant at arms" positions to help election judges ensure that the vote goes smoothly. Such workers are not law enforcement — nor are they armed — but instead primarily work to welcome voters, ensure that they are at the correct polling place and enforce the 100-foot buffer zone.
Simon said that in the weeks since the Atlas Aegis listing surfaced, his office has huddled with state and federal authorities to monitor and ensure that "polling places are oases of calm as much as possible."
"I think we have the tools and the responses to handle anyone who thought wrongly that they could show up to supplement law enforcement," Simon said.
Meanwhile, at least one of the companies involved in recruiting ex-military personnel in Minnesota appears to be distancing itself from the effort.
Reached by e-mail, Stacey Blau, the 5326 Consultants chief operating officer, said it had been collecting résumés "for private security for private companies on private property" in the event of unrest. But Blau added that her firm has since abandoned the effort because it "just did not work out for us from a business perspective, plain and simple." She said the work did not entail security at polling places, acknowledging that such an operation may be illegal.
Nevertheless, she added, "the work is proceeding without us and is being performed under the proper licensing authorities and in coordination with the proper law enforcement authorities," Blau wrote.
Local election officials, however, remain wary.
Ginny Gelms, the elections manager for Hennepin County, said the county is working with cities within its borders to ensure that they are in touch with law enforcement "so that if we do have a scenario crop up that is something that goes beyond what an election judge can handle, [we] have the right people in place."
"Polling place security has always been an important part of what we do," Gelms said. "It is heightened this year. We want to make sure that people know that we are doing everything within our power to make sure they will be safe."
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.