Late Wednesday, the top elections administrator in Pinellas County, Julie Marcus (R), said the two armed people had told sheriff’s deputies that they were hired by the Trump campaign. She said generally that voter intimidation would not be tolerated.
Thurston said Thursday that the tent was 250 feet from the polling site, beyond the perimeter where campaign signs and guns are not permitted. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri (R) said the off-duty guards had done nothing illegal.
The Trump campaign denied that it had hired the pair, and Gualtieri said at a news conference that there was no evidence that it had.
“What gave people the concern was just their presence,” Gualtieri said. “And mere presence alone is not enough. And as I said, you can view that two ways. Some people may feel uncomfortable, and some people may feel very comfortable with it. So it’s very important that people understand what this is and what it’s not, and don’t make this into something it’s not.”
Thurston said one of the two off-duty guards, an acquaintance of his, is a private security guard detailed to the county GOP offices. He said that she came to the tent with a friend, a fellow security guard, after work to show their support for Trump and to pose for pictures in front of the tent.
He declined to identify the woman by name, and a representative of the Pinellas County GOP could not be immediately reached for comment.
Gualtieri said the two worked for a company called Syotos.
“We do not have any employees engaging in poll watching,” the company said in a statement. “We had an off duty employee who was picking up a family member who happened to be in the vicinity of a polling location. The employee saw someone they knew near the polling location and had a short conversation.”
“The officer just had on their gear from leaving work and that was taken out of context,” the company said.
Under Florida law, it is illegal to solicit voters within 150 feet of a polling site. It also is illegal to be armed within that perimeter. Thurston said that on Wednesday evening, sheriff’s deputies confirmed that the guards were legally armed and did not ask them to leave.
Some Pinellas County residents who cast their votes Wednesday said they were rattled by the presence of armed people outside the polling site.
“Walking up to a polling station and seeing armed security guards — it sends the wrong message,” Anthony Hart, 56, who cast his vote, said in an interview. “I saw this and thought this is crazy.”
Amber Bennett, a 28-year-old real estate agent, took a picture of the armed people standing near the voting complex at 5:35 p.m. after casting her vote. “The security guards were under the Trump tent, and the police showed up,” she said. “I thought it was odd.”
“They didn’t seem hostile,” she added. “They were walking around the Trump tent and didn’t seem to be threatening anyone.”