'A Threat to a Fair Election': Experts Warn of Danger Posed by Armed Pro-Trump Poll Watchers

Members of a far-right paramilitary group in downtown Stone Mountain, Georgia on August 15, 2020. (Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images)

'A Threat to a Fair Election': Experts Warn of Danger Posed by Armed Pro-Trump Poll Watchers

"This is the stuff of our worst nightmares."

Following President Donald Trump's refusal last month to denounce white supremacists along with his longstanding pattern of undermining democratic norms--and in the wake of the FBI's interception of a plot by right-wing domestic terrorists to kidnap Michigan's Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government--fears are mounting about the danger posed by far-right paramilitary groups heeding Trump's call to "go into the polls and watch very carefully."

"Confrontations between unorganized, self-appointed poll watchers and individual voters are a recipe for trouble--and a threat to a fair election."
--Nina Jancowicz, Wilson Center

Two weeks after Donald Trump Jr. took to social media in an attempt to recruit an "army for Trump's election security," and with early voting already underway, Republicans this week have begun dispatching thousands of volunteers to in-person voting locations and mail-in ballot drop boxes, part of a desperate "effort to find evidence to back up Trump's unsubstantiated complaints about widespread voter fraud," Reutersreported Thursday.

According to more than 20 officials involved in the effort, "the mission... is to capture photos and videos Republicans can use to support so-far unfounded claims that mail voting is riddled with chicanery, and to help their case if legal disputes erupt over the results of... the contest between Republican incumbent Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden."

But critics of the Trump campaign's operation--which revolves around baseless presumptions of fraudulent electoral activity committed by supporters of Democratic candidates--argued that the president's "call for his supporters to serve as self-appointed" poll-watchers "sounded more like an incitement to voter intimidation and violence than an endorsement of the role election observers play in protecting democratic norms."

Given the White House's alarming normalization of violence against political foes, voting rights experts, civic officials, and citizens are increasingly concerned about the negative consequences that could ensue if tensions escalate and the president's most militant supporters--white nationalist gangs, so-called "patriots" donning Confederate and Nazi regalia, and other heavily armed pro-Trump factions--follow his authoritarian cues.

Steven Gardiner, a scholar at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates, toldThe Guardian on Friday that "the militias will absolutely seize on" Trump's comments.

"The possibility of armed factions with military-style rifles showing up at polling places is very troubling," Gardiner added.

When Devin Burghart--director of the anti-hate organization the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights--heard Trump endorse voter intimidation at last month's debate, his "first thought was, 'Here we go.'"

"This is the stuff of our worst nightmares," Burghart said.

As Common Dreams reported on Thursday amid the revelation that 13 suspects had been arrested on kidnapping and terrorism charges after law enforcement officials foiled a right-wing plot to attack the Michigan State Capitol and hold Gov. Whitmer hostage, many observers have made connections between Trump's demagogic rhetoric and his followers' violent actions.

"I wonder where they got their motivation from," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) noted sarcastically on social media, referring to an incendiary message Trump shared in April--during the height of anti-lockdown protests in the state--to "Liberate Michigan!"

"This is a pattern: Trump paints a target. An attack or plot follows," tweetedWashington Post national security correspondent Greg Miller.

Gardiner told The Guardian that "the relationship between the militias and the current administration is call and response."

"It's not always clear who's leading the chant," he added. "Sometimes it's coming from the militias, sometimes it's coming from the president."

Another worrisome development is that gun sales nearly doubled between summer 2019 and 2020, meaning that the U.S. is further arming itself with "deadly weaponry [that] is increasingly finding its way onto the streets, borne by self-styled private militias, and culminating in violent clashes that have caused bloodshed in several U.S. cities," as The Guardianexplained.

The New York Timesestimated last month that the number of active militia members hovers around 20,000 people in 300 groups, with military veterans constituting one-fourth of those. But a new investigation by The Atlantic magazine into the Oath Keepers, one of the most prominent far-right paramilitary groups, revealed a list of nearly 25,000 current or former members, two-thirds of whom had military or law enforcement backgrounds, suggesting that the number of Americans with ties to extremist factions is larger.

As Common Dreams reported last month, armed white supremacists pose the greatest domestic terrorism threat in the U.S., according to the FBI, despite efforts by the Trump administration to downplay the risks associated with right-wing militias.

According to Gardiner's research, many of the violent incidents committed by far-right vigilantes against anti-racism and anti-police violence protesters this summer were carried out by uncoordinated groups of individuals, with no known involvement of established militias.

"There have been almost 240 incidents [this summer] where small and entirely leaderless bands of extremists coalesced online and then proceeded to take their armed fantasies on to the streets of America," The Guardianreported.

Burghart's team "has been tracking the escalation of militia activity," particularly in key swing states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where "groups have been detected discussing what they call 'voter integrity' efforts" on Election Day.

"We're paying close attention," Burghart said. As a result of Trump's "call to arms" at the first presidential debate, he anticipates that "we'll see a lot more activity from here."

Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, toldThe Guardian that online monitoring conducted by her organization has been "picking up intensifying conversation among militia groups about the legitimacy of the November 3 ballot and of the integrity of mail-in voting."

Rivas explained that "militia groups such as the Montana branch of the United States Freedom Protectors were positioning themselves to be vigilante outriders of law enforcement on Election Day," and that "the possibility of interventions by armed members of the group had to be taken seriously."

"They present themselves as protectors of property and law and order, and are now starting to talk about the election," Rivas said. "They may show up at polling places claiming to want to protect voting rights, but their impact will clearly be intimidatory."

Instilling fear and harassing voters is Trump's goal, according to voting rights advocates. Nina Jankowicz, a political scholar at the Wilson Center, wrote in The Atlantic that "confrontations between unorganized, self-appointed poll watchers and individual voters are a recipe for trouble--and a threat to a fair election."

Jankowicz stated that "if voters encounter any group discouraging or preventing others from casting a ballot, they should immediately inform a poll worker and call a nonpartisan election-protection hotline (866-OUR-VOTE is one example)."

"Election officials across the country should know they have the right to eject poll watchers for disruptions and intimidation, and can call the police if unrest develops outside the station," Jankowicz said. "And police themselves should be reminded that their job is to protect people's ability to vote, no matter their personal political preferences."

Rivas stressed that the threat of voter intimidation "really is top down." Far-right paramilitary groups "are repeating word for word what they hear from President Trump," she said.

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