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Bid to recruit ex-cops as poll challengers comes under fire

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The union that represents Minneapolis police officers is trying to recruit former cops to work as “poll challengers” to work in “problem” areas at the request of an attorney connected to President Donald Trump’s campaign, sparking a backlash from city and state officials who say the move is aimed at intimidating voters.

The request came in an email from William Willingham that was obtained by the Star Tribune. His email signature identified him as a senior legal adviser and director of Election Day operations for the Trump campaign, the newspaper reported. Willingham emailed the president of the Minneapolis

Police Federation, Lt. Bob Kroll, on Wednesday to ask him to recruit 20 to 30 former officers for the task, the newspaper reported.

“Poll Challengers do not ‘stop’ people, per se, but act as our eyes and ears in the field and call our hotline to document fraud,” the email read. “We don’t necessarily want our Poll Challengers to look intimidating, they cannot carry a weapon in the polls due to state law. … We just want people who won’t be afraid in rough neighborhoods or intimidating situations.”

Kroll, a Trump supporter, then shared the request with union members, asking anyone willing to help to contact him. Kroll attended a “Cops for Trump” event with Vice President Mike Pence in Minneapolis last month. And Trump called Kroll, who was wearing a “Cops for Trump” T-shirt, onto the stage of his rally in Minneapolis last year.

Kroll has been a polarizing figure in Minneapolis for years because of his aggressive defense of officers in almost any circumstance. He came under renewed pressure to resign in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, with many calling him an obstacle to changing the culture of the police department.

The recruitment effort drew sharp criticism from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon, Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

“Targeting a voter for a challenge based on being in a so-called ‘problem area’ is unlawful and will not be permitted in Minnesota’s polling places,” tweeted Simon, the state’s chief elections officer.

Neither Willingham nor Kroll immediately responded Thursday to messages from The Associated Press.

The Trump campaign said it didn’t authorize the recruitment effort.

“Mr. Willingham is a volunteer who has been assisting in Minnesota. Neither the Trump Campaign nor the RNC instructed him to send this email,” campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald said in a statement to the AP. “Even so, retired police officers are members of their communities, and as such are well within their rights to participate and volunteer as rule-abiding poll watchers. The media’s breathless obsession with the Trump Campaign poll watchers is baffling, given that every campaign— including Joe Biden’s — recruits them, and they are key to election transparency and accountability.”

Most states allow poll monitors in some form but have rules to prevent any hint of harassment or intimidation. This fall’s election will be the first in nearly 40 years in which the Republican National Committee will be out from under a consent decree that restricted its ability to engage in coordinated poll-watching. Democrats fear that has opened the door for Republicans to engage in the same kind of voter intimidation that led to the consent decree in the early 1980s.

“State & federal laws are clear: No one may intimidate a voter,” Ellison tweeted. “This includes retired police officers & all law enforcement. I will enforce those laws if/when needed to protect Minnesotans’ fundamental right to vote w/o intimidation.”

Minnesota does not allow independent poll watchers in or near polling places. Each major party may appoint one “challenger” per precinct, and both parties have recruited thousands of volunteers for that duty. But what they can do is strictly limited.

“Suspicion is not a basis for making a challenge. The challenger must personally know that a specific person is not eligible to vote for a specific reason,” according to the secretary of state’s website.

Arradondo responded to reports of the union solicitation by issuing a statement pledging that the city’s officers would “remain apolitical” and protect citizens’ rights to vote without intimidation.

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