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Law enforcement in west central Minnesota have plans in place to protect voter rights on Election Day

“There are multiple law enforcement agencies working together to establish and provide guidance for how to respond to incidents at polling places and in-person locations,” Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien said. “We have plans in place to keep (voters) safe.”

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A voter casts a ballot Aug. 11 at the Ward 3, Precinct 1, polling site at Refuge Church in Willmar. Signs on the floor act as reminders to practice social distancing throughout the process of voting in the state's primary election. Erica Dischino file photo / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Law enforcement in the region said they have plans in place to ensure voter safety in response to questions about a private security firm recruiting former U.S. military Special Operations personnel to guard polling sites to defend against Antifa in Minnesota.

The firm's plans, first reported by the Washington Post , also include protecting Minnesota businesses and residences from looting. Antifa is shorthand for anti-fascists, an umbrella description for the far-left-leaning groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events and actions.

Law enforcement who spoke with the West Central Tribune said those plans couldn’t be discussed, citing public safety concerns, but that they plan on responding to calls for service on Election Day regarding any issues at polling sites.

“There are multiple law enforcement agencies working together to establish and provide guidance for how to respond to incidents at polling places and in-person locations,” Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien said. “We have plans in place to keep (voters) safe.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sent a cease and desist letter to the firm, Atlas Aegis, a Tennessee-based company, saying the company would be violating state and federal law, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

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“We want the community to know we have plans in place to keep them safe, but they won’t see us at any polling locations unless there is an emergency,” Willmar Police Capt. Michael Anderson said.

The company did not respond to a West Central Tribune request for comment.

Law enforcement in the region also said they don’t plan on having officers stationed at polling sites, which could be viewed by some as voter intimidation. Law enforcement is also not allowed within 50 feet of polling locations unless responding to a call for service or voting themselves, according to Minnesota Statutes .

“Our position is that as long as things remain peaceful and orderly, we won't have any interaction at poll locations,” Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze said. “If summoned by election officials, we will deal with each situation on the basis of that situation. I would encourage the public to be respectful of others and everyone's right to vote.”

Sheriff Holien also said they’re going to let election judges make the call regarding who should and shouldn’t be at polling sites, “We will respond to any request for assistance,” he said.

Shelby Loberg, associate chair for the Kandiyohi County DFL, said they expect Minnesotans to abide by state and federal law governing election safety.

“Poll watchers are not allowed near polls so we wouldn’t encourage anything of the sort,” Loberg said. “Everybody eligible should vote, and Minnesota law makes it accessible and safe to do so.”

Kandiyohi County GOP Chair Paul Hoffer told the West Central Tribune he had “no comment” when contacted for comment regarding the Washington Post story.

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Minnesota does allow for poll challengers , but there is an official process regarding their appointment and tightly regulated codes of conduct. Political parties or nonpartisan candidates can only appoint one challenger per precinct.

Guards stationed at a polling site for “protection” would not be considered a poll challenger and under Minnesota Statutes , poll watchers are illegal .

“Election Day is one of the core rights and truly special events we have. Law enforcement’s role is to uphold laws,” Chippewa County Sheriff Derek Olson said. “All I can say is we respond to calls for service to ensure public safety and protect individual freedoms.”

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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