Law enforcement analysts and voting rights experts are warning local officials of decentralized efforts by conspiracy believers and right-wing extremists to disrupt and sway the midterm elections on Tuesday, raising fears that the results could be marred by voter intimidation, a deluge of frivolous lawsuits and even violence fueled by former President Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.
From Florida to Pennsylvania and Michigan, far right groups and pundits are calling on their followers to surveil ballot drop boxes and volunteer as poll workers, observers and vote challengers, efforts that already sparked legal battles over election observation rules and allegations of voter intimidation. The armed vigilantes who staked out a drop boxes across Arizona’s Maricopa County last week heightened fears that precincts serving high concentrations of Black and Brown voters will be targeted in cities such as Phoenix and Detroit, which were at the center of baseless internet conspiracy theories after Trump spread lies about the 2020 election. After hearing from voting rights groups, a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on the far right group operating in Maricopa County this week.
Federal law enforcement agencies recently distributed intelligence bulletins warning of a “heightened threat” of “domestic violent extremism” fueled by conspiracy theories and election denialism, with potential targets including “candidates … elected officials, election workers, political rallies, political party representatives, racial and religious minorities, or perceived ideological opponents,” according to CBS News.
Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week to prepare local election officials and police departments for right-wing disruption efforts. This could include a potential deluge of 911 calls claiming to report “voter fraud,” according to reports. With far right groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers focusing on local precincts and communities, officials must make firm public statements asserting that voter intimidation and armed militia activity around polling locations will not be tolerated, McCord said.
“All of these efforts are really part of this strategy to not only threaten and intimidate, but also to really gum up the works, which will lead to the ability to file lawsuits” challenging the election results, McCord said on MSNBC this week. “They might be frivolous, they might be baseless, but they are trying to set up a rational that would allow for filing of those suits.”
News outlets first reported the intelligence bulletins warning of extremist violence on Friday, the same day that a man broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home in California and brutally attacked her husband with a hammer in an attempt to hunt down the Democratic leader. Analysts say the suspected assailant, David DePape, left a trail online suggesting a “standard case of online right-wing radicalization.”
However, the right-wing media quickly dismissed the attack with a bizarre and homophobic conspiracy theory with help from Trump and other figures who were quick to share debunked claims and hearsay online. Thanks to the insular nature of right-wing and pro-Trump media ecosystem, the baseless conspiracy theory was likely accepted as reality by a sizable chunk of the GOP base, according to Matt Gertz, a researcher at Media Matters for America.
The right-wing media bubble has pushed election denialism since 2020 and is currently spreading misinformation about the midterm elections and “voter fraud” as Republican operatives organize an “army” of poll watchers to contest the vote, according to Truthout’s analysis of content on conservative social media sites. Gertz argues that right-wing media consumers exist in a sort of “parallel media ecosystem” where they are “uniquely vulnerable” to conspiracy theories that frame political opponents as evil, Satanic enemies, fueling violence and extremism in the process:
The right-wing press spent decades spinning out these politically convenient narratives about the diabolical nature of their perceived enemies until the audience came to demand them. Few on the right — and none with any real degree of influence — are interested in debunking the rampant lies once they get going. Instead, powerful figures at Fox News and elsewhere end up pushing the likes of QAnon talking points and scoffing at its extremism. And decades of right-wing attacks on the mainstream press have created a bubble in which the audience is unlikely to receive or credit contradictory information from those outlets.
It’s within this media bubble that intelligence analysts, journalists and voting rights groups are looking for evidence that extremists are plotting to sow chaos on Election Day. While law enforcement cautions that violence could arise from any end of the political spectrum, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin obtained by news outlets last week said the “most plausible” threat comes from “lone offenders who leverage election-related issues to justify violence,” including grievances about Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden in 2020.
Madeline Peltz, a researcher at Media Matters for America who covers former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said the far right agitator’s “War Room” podcast is a central hub for radicalizing people with election conspiracy theories and pulling together right-wing efforts to disrupt and subvert the vote.
“Over past few weeks and months, Bannon is using his platform as an organizing hub for dozens of election denial groups that are recruiting volunteers to participate in the election process, both externally and also through government positions such as poll workers and watchers,” Peltz said in an interview with Truthout.
Bannon’s fans and other right-wing audiences are explicitly being called to challenge the vote in Democratic strongholds, Peltz added. Voting rights groups and nonpartisan observers will be on the ground to assist voters and document any abuses, if they occur. Voting rights groups are currently distributing resources to help voters identify and report illegal voter intimidation, including militia activity near the polls that is banned in several states.
Various state laws govern what designated “poll watchers” are allowed to do inside the polls, including challenge a voter’s ballot. Even if your qualification to vote is challenged by a “watcher” or observer at the polls on Election Day, voting rights groups say you still have the right to cast a regular ballot unless that challenge is sustained and, at minimum, you have the right to cast a provisional ballot before leaving the site.