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Trump wants new authority over polling places. Top election officials say no

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2016

WASHINGTON — President Trump would be able to dispatch Secret Service agents to polling places nationwide during a federal election, a vast expansion of executive authority, if a provision in a Homeland Security reauthorization bill remains intact.

The rider has prompted outrage from more than a dozen top elections officials around the country, including Secretary of State William F. Galvin of Massachusetts, a Democrat, who says he is worried that it could be used to intimidate voters and said there is “no basis” for providing Trump with this new authority.

“This is worthy of a Third World country,” said Galvin in an interview. “I’m not going to tolerate people showing up to our polling places. I would not want to have federal agents showing up in largely Hispanic areas.”


“The potential for mischief here is enormous,” Galvin added.

The provision alarming him and others is a rider attached to legislation that would re-authorize the Department of Homeland Security. The legislation already cleared the House of Representatives with bipartisan support.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs didn’t include the measure in the version of the bill it approved this week, according to Ben Voelkel, a spokesman for Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate committee.

The full Senate must still approve the bill, and then the two versions of the legislation would need to be reconciled before going to the president for approval.

The White House didn’t respond to a question about the measure.

“There is no discernible need for federal secret service agents to intrude, at the direction of the president, who may also be a candidate in that election, into thousands of citadels where democracy is enshrined,” according to a letter opposing the provision that was signed by 19 bipartisan secretaries of state and elections commissioners.


The letter — sent to the Senate’s majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and its minority leader, Charles Schumer, on Friday afternoon —requests that the Senate keep the Secret Service provision from the final legislation. The elections officials described the proposal as “unprecedented and shocking.”

“This is an alarming proposal which raises the possibility that armed federal agents will be patrolling neighborhood precincts and vote centers,” according to the letter, which was obtained by the Globe.

Trump has accused Massachusetts residents of illegally casting ballots in New Hampshire as a part of a vast voter fraud scheme he believes cost him the Granite State’s electorial college votes during the 2016 general election. Hillary Clinton narrowly won New Hampshire’s four electoral college points.

No evidence has been found that such voter fraud occurred, with elections officials in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts saying there were no widespread irregularities.

Trump has also said that illegal ballots cast in other parts of the country cost him the popular vote, which he lost by nearly 3 million ballots. There has also been no evidence that nearly so many votes were cast improperly.

But Trump used that accusation as a reason to launch a commission on voter fraud through which he sought personal voter information from every state. The commission dissolved in January after many states refused to comply with the federal request and amid multiple lawsuits.

Under current law, the Secret Service can be stationed at a polling place to protect the president or other federal officials when voting. But they do not provide law enforcement.


Catherine Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, said Saturday that her agency is seeking “clarifying language” to ensure agents can access polling places while protecting candidates.

The request, she said, was in response to an incident during the 2016 election when officers encountered “some reluctance” from staff at a polling location. The poll workers worried that letting in armed agents would violate a federal law barring troops from polling places, she said. She didn’t have details on which candidate or which state the incident occured.

“The only time armed Secret Service personnel would be at a polling place would be to facilitate the visiting of one of our protectees while they voted,” Milhoan said.

This story was updated to reflect a comment Saturday afternoon from the Secret Service.

Annie Linskey can be reached at