BOISE, Idaho — Voting rights advocates and state officials are on high alert over fears that U.S. polling stations could attract the same strain of partisan violence and civil unrest that erupted on American streets this year, fueled by a deadly pandemic, outrage over police brutality and one of the most contentious elections ever.
Anti-government extremists and other armed civilians have flocked to protests against racial injustice and Covid-19 lockdowns. Paramilitary group members are accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor before the election. President Donald Trump encouraged one far-right extremist group to “stand back and stand by” and called for an army of “poll watchers” to keep tabs on polling places.
While gun rights advocates say fears of violence at the polls are unfounded, the toxic political atmosphere and the prospect of armed poll monitors have some worried it will keep voters from the polls and affect the election.
“Just as an American, the fact that we’re having this conversation is absolutely terrifying to me,” said American University professor Kurt Braddock, who researches extremist groups. “It’s a testament to how far the extreme right has come with getting into this conversation and impacting the way that politics get done here.”
Trump has called for an army of “poll watchers” to go to the polls and “watch carefully.” Monitoring the votes at polling places is allowed in most states, but rules vary and it’s not a free-for-all. States have established rules, in part, to avoid any hint that observers will harass or intimidate voters.
Some states and groups are preparing for that possibility.
In Minnesota, two advocacy groups have sued after a Tennessee-based company placed ads seeking military veterans to provide armed security at polling places and to provide security after the election to protect businesses and residents from “looting and destruction.”
On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a team of hundreds of civilians will spread out across the city to report any instance of voter intimidation. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner opened a hotline that rings directly to his office's prosecutors, who will send detectives to investigate reports of voter suppression or intimidation.
In Ohio, the League of Women Voters has been recruiting and training “peacekeeper teams” of clergy and social workers to de-escalate any tensions at the polls. So far, 125 people have signed up.
“The thought is that when people see ministers with their clergy collars on, or with their stoles, people who are concerned about violence are more apt to be comforted — and the ones who might perpetrate the violence might maybe pull back little bit,” said the Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith, one of the program trainers.
In Arizona, a coalition of voting rights groups has formed to dispatch volunteers trained to combat voter intimidation and misinformation efforts. The group, Election Protection Arizona, hopes to train 200 people to deploy to polls on Election Day and 100 more to monitor social media.
“Our poll volunteers are there to ensure everyone’s right to vote is protected regardless of who they are voting for,” Muna Hijazi, the group’s organizing director, said during a call with reporters this month.
Federal and state law enforcement officials are expanding preparations for the possibility of widespread unrest at the polls. FBI and local officials in several states have been conducting drills and setting up command centers.
Only six states plus the District of Columbia expressly prohibit carrying a firearm or other deadly weapon to a polling place. Some other states ban carrying a firearm concealed but have no such restrictions on openly carrying a handgun or long gun. Federal law bans firearms at schools, so polling places at those are off limits.
Concerns about voter intimidation are particularly pronounced in battleground states. In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a directive reminding state elections clerks that firearms cannot be openly carried at the polls.
“Fair, free and secure elections are the foundation of our democracy,” Benson said.
Authorities say they foiled a plot by members of two anti-government paramilitary groups to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. Members of one of the groups, called the Wolverine Watchmen, are accused of planning and training for other violent crimes, such as storming the Michigan Capitol building.
Other self-styled militia groups have shown that they have no qualms about carrying their guns into public spaces, said Braddock, the American University professor.
“It’s one thing for militias to take semi-automatic rifles into the Michigan Statehouse. It’s another thing to take it into a post office where somebody is trying to vote, where there aren’t armed guards and people to protect the electorate,” he said.
During his first debate with Joe Biden, Trump refused to outright condemn the neo-fascist Proud Boys, a group known for street brawling with ideological opponents at political rallies. A day after he told Proud Boys members to “stand back and stand by," the president tried to walk back those words and said the group's members should “stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
Gun rights activists say fears of violence at the polls are unfounded and stoked by a leftist agenda.
“This sounds like a lot of fear-mongering by gun haters. They are always predicting that violence is going to break out. But like Chicken Little, they are always wrong,” said Erich Pratt, senior vice president at Gun Owners of America.
False alarms, like one in Florida, may be inevitable: Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a press briefing on Thursday to knock down rumors of voter intimidation in the county. After a uniformed security guard stopped at an early polling site after work to pick up a relative, at least one local TV station reported it as an intimidation effort. Gualtieri said the guard wasn't part of any campaign and didn't engage with any voter.