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SPLC poll monitor detained, threatened with arrest in Autauga County

Brook Boone, an SPLC attorney, told APR that the incident was evidence that more training is needed for poll workers in Autauga County.

Close up of voting signs pointing toward the polling location on a rainy day.

A non-partisan poll monitor says she was detained by an Autauga County Sheriff’s Office deputy and ordered by a supervisor to leave a polling location and to not visit any other in the county or she’d be arrested and charged with a crime.

Vivianna Rodriguez, a poll monitor on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center and an outreach paralegal with the nonprofit Montgomery legal advocacy organization, told APR that the supervisor, Autauga County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Captain Tom Allen, slapped her hand while attempting to take her cell phone, which was left on during the incident so she could speak to an SPLC attorney and an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, who were both on the call at the time.

Rodriguez said in her three years as a poll monitor nothing like the incident in Autauga County had ever happened.

Brock Boone, an SPLC attorney who spoke to Rodriguez after the incident, told APR that what happened was evidence that more training is needed for poll workers in Autauga County.

“I think it’s also another example of something we’ve seen in the past few years, which is, the election official was white. Viviana is a person of color, and it’s an example of what I would say are white people weaponizing the police when absolutely no crime has been committed,” Boone said.

Rodriguez — who is Latina, a first-generation college graduate and works as an advocate outreach paralegal for the SPLC — said she had already visited two other polling locations in Autauga County before the incident, where she’d check to see if the buildings were wheelchair accessible, how long the lines were and if people are socially distanced.

All of that work can be done from outside, she said, but she always goes in to introduce herself and let poll workers know why she’s there, out of courtesy.

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Rodriguez said workers at the other two locations treated her with “kindness,” but after photographing the wheelchair ramp outside at the polling site at Marbury Middle School, she entered to introduce herself to a poll worker and was told she was not allowed to be there if she didn’t have documents proving she was a poll watcher for either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Alabama law allows partisan poll watchers, who are nominated by their political party, to monitor what’s happening in polling locations.

“Non-partisan poll monitors are not prohibited from entering a polling site, but they cannot stay and observe inside. Sometimes our monitors will go in briefly to introduce themselves as a courtesy,” said a member of SPLC’s voting rights team in a message to APR on Tuesday.

The poll worker asked Rodriguez to step outside while the worker called the probate office, which she did. Rodriguez said she tried explaining she was a non-partisan poll monitor and was even wearing a bright green T-shirt that said as much, with the SPLC logo on the back.

The worker spoke to someone at the Autauga County Probate Office, who also didn’t seem to know what a non-partisan poll monitor was, Rodriguez said, and insisted she fill out an application to be a poll monitor for the independent party and said someone was coming to help her.

“That’s when I called my people from the SPLC to let him know what’s going on and they advised me that I could just leave, if there was going to be such a problem,” Rodriguez said, adding that she told the deputy who she was on the phone with.

Rodriguez said she left in her truck and was a good distance from the middle school when she saw a sheriff’s deputy SUV turn its lights and sirens on and maneuver around other cars to get to her.

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She immediately called the attorneys to let them know she was being pulled over.

“I asked the deputy why I was being detained, and he said that it was because I was disturbing the peace and that I was blocking voters from voting, neither of which were true,” Rodriguez said, adding that the deputy called for his supervisor to come.

Autauga County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Captain Tom Allen arrived and told her to step out of her truck, and Rodriguez said the attorneys on her cell phone told her to comply, which she did.

“He keeps telling me to hang up my phone, hang up my phone, and I told him no, that I’m not going to hang up my phone, that I don’t feel safe out there with them,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said Allen told her they had received reports from voters that she was taking photos inside the polling place and was harassing people.

“I stated again to him that that was not true, that I was simply there to make sure that it was wheelchair accessible, ramps are located near the parking, and that those are the pictures that I was taking and they were taken outside of the building,” Rodriguez said. “That’s when he kept trying to reiterate that it was illegal for me to be there if I was not with the Republican Party or with the Democratic Party.”

Rodriguez said one of the attorneys on her cell phone then tried to interject to explain the difference between a partisan poll watcher and a non-partisan poll watcher, and it seemed to make Allen angry.

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“He tried to grab my phone and because I reacted so quickly, the motion of me retracting my phone towards my chest is what made him slap my hand,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said she asked him if he’d just tried to grab her phone from her hand and said Allen replied, “Yes, I guess, I did. I don’t know who you’re on the phone talking to, who’s interrupting our private conversation.”

“While he was saying that he was lunging at me, like stepping towards me,” Rodriguez said. “At that point, I felt very unsafe, but I think he kind of realized what he was doing, how it appeared.”

Allen then calmed down and told her that he was giving her a warning and that if she showed up at any other polling site in the county she’d be arrested and most likely charged with a crime, Rodriguez said.

“He ended the conversation with ‘get gone’ and waved his hands in the air towards me,” Rodriguez said.

Attempts to reach the Autauga County Sheriff’s Office and the Autauga County Probate Judge for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Boone said SPLC poll watchers are only at each polling location for less than 20 minutes, just long enough to record whether the locations are wheelchair accessible, note if there’s adequate signage, if lines are long and if people are social distancing. All of that is done outside, Rodriguez said.

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“The only time I go in is just to introduce myself,” she said.

“Vivianna was simply trying to ensure that the precinct is upholding safe voting for that community, which is fundamental to a functioning democracy,” Boone said. “So it goes back to policing and also race and also voting. It has all of the elements that make this incident especially troubling and egregious, in my opinion.”

Rodriguez said that as the child of immigrants and a first-generation Mexican-American, she takes her work and the right to vote seriously.

“I believe that this is such a privilege and blessing for everybody to be able to exercise their right to vote, and that is exactly why I get out and poll monitor,” Rodrigeuz said. “Because I feel that everybody should be able to have access to get to the polls, no matter who you are or who you vote for.”

Rodriguez said she was about to start her second shift of poll monitoring. “I’m going to be walking more emboldened because I feel like if this is not deterring me and it’s not scaring me in any sense or any way whatsoever,” she said.

“It’s actually built me back up, reminds me why I’m out here, reminds me why we do this type of work. It reminds me why SPLC has a voting rights practice group, why we’re here, and why it’s necessary,” Rodriguez said.

Margaret Huang, SPLC’s president and CEO, told APR that Rodriguez’s drive to get back out and continue the work Tuesday speaks well for her.

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“And it speaks a lot to the passion that so many of us feel as we’re doing the volunteer work. We care about people getting to exercise their right to vote,” Huang said. “And we want to make sure everybody can do it, that everybody has access to their polling place, that there aren’t unnecessary obstacles to the effort to vote. What matters is that people get to have their voice heard in this election.”

Huang herself visited four polling locations in Elmore County Tuesday morning and said generally things were moving smoothly.

“At every polling station I visited the comment was, we’ve seen more people today than we have ever seen before, then we saw in 2016, so there’s a lot of energy and a lot of people turning out,” Huang said.

The biggest challenge she said they saw was a lack of adequate signage denoting polling locations as such.

“There were also some issues with accessibility. Three of the polling stations did not have either designated parking or, frankly, a smooth entry into the building. Some of them didn’t have an accessible ramp at all for people entering the building,” Huang said.

Huang said that’s why SPLC trains non-partisan poll monitors like Rodriguez, to look for ways in which the state can make voting more accessible.

“Not only can we try to be helpful right now, as people are trying to vote, but also for future elections,” Huang said. “We want to try to make every polling place as accessible as possible.”

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Huang said there have been reports of long lines and some polling locations in Lee County with just one ballot machine, which is causing longer wait times.

“So people are spending a number of hours there, and we’ve been asking that they extend voting hours because people have been waiting so long to be able to cast their vote,” Huang said.

Attempts to reach Lee County Probate Judge Bill English on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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