National Guard Can Assist at Polling Places with State Approval, Officials Say

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New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers process primary election ballots.
Army Spc. Jordan Rivera, left, and Sgt. Evan M. Ruggiero, both with Charlie Battery, 3-112th Field Artillery Regiment, New Jersey Army National Guard, process ballots at the Atlantic County Board of Elections in Mays Landing, New Jersey, July 7, 2020. More than 100 New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers assisted election officials in seven counties by performing duties related to the state’s primary election. This is the first time the New Jersey National Guard has supported a domestic election. (Mark C. Olsen/New Jersey National Guard)

Members of the National Guard wearing civilian clothes volunteered with operations at polling places in three states during the primaries and would not be barred from assisting in the November general elections if called upon by governors, according to the National Guard Bureau.

"Currently, there is no formal request," Army Master Sgt. W. Michael Houk, a spokesman for the Bureau, said Thursday of Guard assistance during the November elections.

Laws barring troops in uniform from participating in political activities do not apply to Guard members in civilian clothes activated by governors and paid for by the states, he added.

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Houk explained that Guard members would be barred from assisting at polling places if they were operating with federal support under Title 32 of the U.S. Code. "That type of support is a no-go," he said.

Several hundred Guard members assisted at polling places in Kentucky, Wisconsin and New Jersey during the primaries under strict orders to stay out of the actual voting process.

Without public complaint from Republicans or Democrats, they essentially filled in for regular workers who stayed home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guard officials said.

Maj. Steve Martin, a spokesman for the Kentucky National Guard, said Friday that 240 Guard members assisted in 44 of Kentucky's 120 counties during the June primary. All of them were volunteers in civilian clothes and were forbidden from wearing any insignia that might indicate they were National Guard, he said.

They assisted with cleaning polling places, traffic control, maintenance support and other non-political work.

"All of their duties were non-polling related," Martin said. "No federal dollars were involved."

The Kentucky Guard is prepared to assist on a similar basis in the November elections, he added, but "we have not received a formal request yet" from Gov. Andy Beshear.

The issue of troops being involved in politics was raised again Tuesday when two soldiers in Operational Camouflage Pattern uniforms briefly appeared in the background behind delegates from American Samoa during the virtual roll call vote at the Democratic National Convention.

The two soldiers were from the Army Reserve's 9th Mission Support Command. On Wednesday, the Army announced that an investigation was being launched into the incident.

In a statement, Lt. Col. Emanuel Ortiz, an Army spokesman, said, "Wearing a uniform to a partisan political event like this is prohibited."

In Wisconsin, nearly 700 National Guard soldiers and airmen served as polling station volunteers in 40 counties for the Aug. 11 primary due to a shortage of poll workers during the pandemic, according to an Army release.

"I could not be prouder of our service members who coordinate and plan these election call-ups on short notice, as we have to ensure the county clerks have exhausted their recruiting efforts and have a critical need," said Brig. Gen. Robyn Blader, the assistant adjutant general for readiness and training.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: Army Investigating Reservists Who Appeared in Uniform at Democratic National Convention

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