Former president Bill Clinton is drawing flak from people who say he spoke to a large crowd too close to a polling place in New Bedford, potentially preventing some residents from voting in Tuesday’s presidential primary.
Videos and photos show that Clinton was close to the entrance of the polling place at a building in Buttonwoood Park as he thanked people for voting — and for supporting his wife, Hillary, who is seeking the Democratic nomination.
“Thank you all for participating. I especially thank those of you who are supporting Hillary,” Clinton yelled through a megaphone, as he stood next to New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.
Clinton spoke for several minutes, with his speech, at times, being interrupted by protesters.
When Clinton finished, Mitchell took over the megaphone and touted how Hillary Clinton had once worked in New Bedford helping children to get into schools.
“New Bedford has played a part in her journey. Let’s do out part to get her over the hump now,” he said.
Bill Clinton’s critics fumed and created an online petition calling for the “prosecution” and “arrest” of Clinton for allegedly violating state election laws. More than 26,000 people had signed the Change.org petition as of Wednesday morning.
According to Secretary of State William Galvin’s website, certain activities on Election Day are prohibited within polling locations and within 150 feet of polling places, including the “solicitation of votes for or against, or any other form of promotion or opposition of, any person or political party.”
The rally outside the New Bedford polling place also sparked outrage from supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders on Reddit.
On a Reddit discussion thread dedicated to the Vermont senator’s campaign, supporters went as far as examining screen shots of videos of his speech and comparing them with Google maps to determine whether Clinton was 150 feet away from the polling place doors in New Bedford.
Some said it may have kept people from voting, and urged people to contact Galvin’s office to complain.
Sanders narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in the state primaries on Super Tuesday.
In a statement, Mitchell said the polling place in Buttonwood Park remained open at all times, and that “no orders were given to restrict access at any location.”
“At no time did former President Clinton enter a polling location in New Bedford,” he added.
Clinton’s appearance in New Bedford came after he had already been criticized earlier in the day for his actions at two polling places in the Boston area.
While stumping for his wife, Clinton entered polling stations at the Holy Name Parish School’s gymnasium in West Roxbury, and the Newton Free Library, in Newton.
The incidents prompted Galvin’s office to reach out to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and remind them of the rules barring solicitation of votes near polling places.
“He had the right to go into the polling locations, and say ‘Hello’ to workers who were there. The issue is, you can’t go inside and say, ‘Vote for my wife,’ or ‘Vote for Hillary,’” Galvin said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Galvin said that in New Bedford, the former president did speak in front of the polling location, but Galvin didn’t know how close he was.
Galvin said that his office was “annoyed” that Clinton addressed hundreds of people during an “ad hoc” rally near a polling place, after his wife’s campaign had already been contacted several times. But allegations that Clinton kept people from actually voting in the election, Galvin said, are erroneous.
“It’s unusual to have someone outside having a rally, that’s for sure,” Galvin said. “But voting was never interrupted, and voters could always get access to the polls”
Galvin said his office is not “investigating” Clinton’s conduct, but rather, his office wants to look at ways to make sure that, in the future, candidates' supporters don’t cause traffic jams or hinder access to voting locations.
“There was a traffic issue, there is no disputing that — it should have been organized away from the polls,” Galvin said. “It definitely made it more difficult for voters to park — that I don’t dispute — but the voting was never disrupted.”
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said that Clinton’s staff should have taken “much better care to ensure he didn’t do anything that was viewed as disruptive.” But at this point, he said, it’s not likely that much can be done.
“Not every violation needs to result in some sort of sanction or prosecution,” he said. “It’s not likely to have swayed voters, or kept voters from voting. At best, it was disruptive, but I’m not sure that it’s anything more than that.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.