As the election approaches, progressives are experiencing a lot of fear and anxiety. Of course, a major fear — beyond Trump winning — is that he will lose but refuse to step down. But far right intimidation at the polls themselves, as well as pre- and post-election violence, are also possibilities — and progressive organizers are making plans for all of these scenarios.
Already there have been ominous signs. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power. Attorney General William Barr has made numerous false claims about fraudulent mail-in ballots. And violence on the streets seems to be ramping up in intensity. This includes three recent killings of activists (two on the far right, and one of a self-described antifascist), as well as the arrests of a militia group for planning to kidnap the Michigan governor.
The intensity of far right chatter about the election is also increasing. Rachel Carroll Rivas of the Montana Human Rights Network told Truthout they’ve heard “a lot of vague noises” about forthcoming plans — a sentiment echoed by many others who monitor the far right. But public concrete plans are scarce; she only knew of one militia group making threats, and they only said they had a “plan to do whatever is necessary” after the election.
The biggest immediate concern is that the far right groups will intimidate voters at the polls. During the first presidential debate, Trump said, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.” Donald Trump Jr. amplified his father, calling for an “army for Trump’s election security operation.”
Disturbing incidents have already occurred. Carroll Rivas said she’s received two reports of militia intimidation at ballot boxes. Meanwhile, in September in Fairfax, Virginia, Trump supporters shouted slogans and drove in circles around a polling location. On Wednesday in St. Petersburg, Florida, two armed guards, claiming the Trump campaign hired them, sat outside an early voting site. (The campaign denied their claims.) And a private security company was recruiting former soldiers “to make sure that the Antifas don’t try to destroy the election sites” in Minnesota — a ludicrous claim echoing Trump’s demonizing rhetoric about antifascists. The company is now being sued for attempting to “sabotage a free and fair election,” and the state’s attorney general is investigating.
Despite these fears, only a limited number of far right groups have indicated that they intend to “monitor” the polls. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Cassie Miller, the Proud Boys announced in September that they intended to monitor drop-off ballot locations in Oregon. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the paramilitary Patriot group the Oath Keepers, said his members will monitor the polls with concealed firearms, but will “step in” if police do not do their jobs to their satisfaction. Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights said he knows of far right plans in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
However, talk is cheap and there is reason to be skeptical of these claims. It’s hard to imagine the Proud Boys, who have taken to public drinking at their rallies, doing the boring work of watching an election. Rhodes is well-known for frequently making idle threats of violence — although his group has shown up armed to events, like the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff.
Carroll Rivas pointed out that a more disturbing potential scenario might not involve organized groups. Since so many far right activists are already armed, ideologically indoctrinated and networked together, it “only takes a spark to ignite people who are primed for this and in a state of high-intensity preparation.” The mobs which formed in the wake of completely unfounded rumors earlier this year that “buses of antifa” were coming to riot in rural areas vividly illustrates this potential.
But progressive groups are making plans to counter these potential scenarios. Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project is encouraging members to pressure county authorities ahead of the election to “Uphold the rights of citizens to vote without intimidation” by responding “quickly and transparently to any reports…including vandalism or irregularities identified at official ballot drop” and postal boxes. They are also being asked to “Provide clear, consistent and factual information and remedies taken to prevent or stop voter intimidation.”
The Frontline, a new coalition which includes the Movement for Black Lives, is sending volunteers to maintain a presence at the polls to ensure that people can vote unmolested. In addition to de-escalation training, volunteers are being asked to consider distracting (or audibly drowning out) far right activists who are harassing voters, and to ask clergy or media to come to the scene.
Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection has produced factsheets detailing state laws about militias. The factsheets include a comprehensive reporting guide about what details observers should collect if they see militias at polling sites. These include, for example, insignia, leaders and specific acts of the militias.
In fact, all of these groups are encouraging the public to document all acts of voter intimidation. They have set up, or are providing information about, hotlines people can call to share their observations and documentation.
Both federal and state authorities are also taking action. The FBI and state officials are “conducting drills, running through worse-case scenarios, setting up command centers to improve coordination on reports of violence and voter intimidation, and issuing public warnings.” Michigan has banned open carry at polling sites, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said she has put “security provisions in place.”
However, disturbingly, some county sheriffs have pushed back against these democratic safeguards. In Michigan, one sheriff said he would allow open carry at poll sites, while others refused to commit to upholding the ban.
Beyond voter intimidation, the possibility of both pre- and post-election violence is also hovering in the air. Over the last four years, parts of the far right have cooled on Trump and may not particularly care about the election’s outcome. However, there are certainly still groups that may be poised to act. The “accelerationist” tendency, including the armed Boogaloo movement, are the most likely candidates to launch attacks before the election, as part of its strategy to create chaos and destabilization in order to have an opportunity to implement their radical, right-wing ideas on a mass level.
After the election, groups angered at a Trump loss or celebrating a Trump victory could become violent. (There is also a very real possibility that white supremacists, in particular, will turn to open terrorism if Biden wins.) Carroll Rivas points out two likely targets in her state. The first are local officials involved in the elections. The second are targets of far right demonization which are composed of people of color or Jews — likely Black Lives Matter or, following prominent anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, groups seen as controlled by George Soros.
Last, the possibility that Trump will refuse to step down after losing is being taken very seriously. Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy, authored by a group of progressive organizers, outlines three possible scenarios. In addition to losing but refusing to step down, Trump could declare victory among unclear results or signs of widespread tampering. Any of these scenarios would likely drag on until January 20, 2021, when it will be seen for once and for all whether Trump will relinquish power. Various national progressive groups are planning protests for these possibilities.
While there is much uncertainly and fear, and so few facts, it’s important not to become overwhelmed. As Carroll Rivas said, we should “be prepared without being scared or intimidated.”