'Election-related intimidation' concerns Westport officials

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Vote here sign

Vote here sign

Hearst Connecticut Media /

WESTPORT — As more campaign signs are being stolen and politically charged messages have been left around town, local officials are encouraging civility as Election Day approaches.

“As individuals, and as an elected group, we are very concerned about the recent incident of election-related intimidation and other negative and inappropriate election-related activities taking place in Westport,” the town’s three selectmen said in a statement released Tuesday.

“We stand with all town elected officials to say that acts of disrespect, hatred and violence have no place in Westport, whether election-related or not.”

Last month, dozens of threatening signs were posted around downtown, some with anti-police messages and calling for the death of President Donald Trump. A juvenile and 18-year-old Westport resident have been arrested in connection with the case.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said the language on those signs wasn’t what one expects to see on political signs. He said there have also been reports of political signs taken out of the ground or vandalized, which is a bit more commonplace.

“It’s not right,” he said, adding candidates pay for those signs.

He said there has been an uptick in reports of signs being taken — including from private properties — though the overall number is still relatively low.

“We want to get ahead of this,” Marpe said.

Marpe said there are also political signs, often in support of Trump, that have offensive language. He declined to say what was written on these signs.

“That gets people concerned as well,” he said, adding those signs are protected by the first amendment.

Ellen Lautenberg, the Democratic Town Committee chairwoman, said she hasn’t heard of incidents in Westport of election-related intimidation beyond the downtown signs, though she said she heard some concerns about the head of the state’s Republicans calling for an “Election Day Operation Army.”

State officials also spoke about that in a press conference last week and urged vigilance for any voter intimidation at polling places on Election Day, the Associated Press reported.

Lautenberg said she’s actually seen an outpouring of volunteers reaching out to Westport’s registrars to help on Nov. 3. She said part of that increased interest could also be attributed to the coronavirus since the usual poll workers tend to be older and more vulnerable to COVID. There’s been an effort to increase volunteers in case those poll workers are unable to participate this year.

“There’s a heightened awareness,” she said. “I think people are just interested in helping any way they can and doing their part to make sure the election runs smoothly.”

She said the community is generally respectful about political discourse and of people’s right to vote.

Joe Sledge, the Republican Town Committee chairman, said he also hadn’t heard of any other issues in town. He said there have been reports of signs missing, but said those could have been removed by the state if they were in the right of way and not because of any political malice.

He said the police take reports of sign theft seriously and the town’s planning and zoning commission allows residents to display political signs.

“We have a framework that’s workable and flexible and we try to adhere to the rules,” Sledge said.

He said he can’t say if this election has been worse than previous years.

“Emotions run hot and civil discourse is important — emphasis on civil,” he said. “We have to be civil to each other.”

The selectmen’s statement also links to information the Anti-Defamation League released about possible obstacles facing people’s ability to vote in the upcoming election, including “not only COVID-19 but also a surge of extremist activity and a legacy of systemic racism.”

The ADL goes on to say extremists are trying to exploit and manipulate fear and anger, which could negatively affect voter turnout and conspiracy theories about voter fraud are surging.

Marpe said he’s not worried about these particular things happening in Westport, but one of the leaders of the Connecticut ADL lives in town and offers “invaluable advice and support” to his administration and the police department.

“We thought it was important to restate our concerns and speak to our citizens about remaining committed to civil discourse,” Marpe said. “Because this election, more than any other I can remember, there’s an aspect to it that has people concerned, whether it’s violence or bad behavior. It’s not one side or the other.”

He said they wanted to be clear that they opposed any behavior that crossed the line.

“We implore all Westporters to approach this election with activities and behaviors that show respect for others and reflect positively on our community,” the selectmen’s statement concluded. “We must be committed to civil discourse and legal election activities regardless of the behaviors we may be witnessing in other communities or on a national level.”