How Political Violence Threatens U.S. Elections

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Members of the Proud Boys cheer on stage as they and other right-wing demonstrators rally, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Trump's exchange with Joe Biden Tuesday night left the extremist group Proud Boys celebrating what some of its members saw as tacit approval. (John Locher/AP)
Members of the Proud Boys cheer on stage as they and other right-wing demonstrators rally, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Trump's exchange with Joe Biden Tuesday night left the extremist group Proud Boys celebrating what some of its members saw as tacit approval. (John Locher/AP)

The Department of Homeland Security says white nationalism is a major domestic terrorism threat. Is that, coupled with distrust in the electoral system, a recipe for political violence in November?


Mary B. McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. She previously served in the Department of Justice as the acting assistant attorney general for national security. (@GeorgetownICAP)

Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. His group just put out a huge report on the alt-right group “People’s Rights." (@dburghart)

Eric K. Ward, executive director of the Western States Center. Editor of "Conspiracies: Real Grievances, Paranoia and Mass Movements." (@BulldogShadow)

Interview Highlights

On the possibility of violence in November

Devin Burghart: “In my 25 years of doing this work it’s the first time I've ever seen a confluence of events like this. We are seeing a high level of activity from militia-type groups and other far right organizations discussing the possibility of interfering in the electoral process, either on Election Day or after the ballots are cast. And it's a really troublesome and worrisome event for all of us here at the institute.”

What are you seeing online?

Devin Burghart: “There are a couple of different dynamics that we're seeing. The first is discussions of going to the polls on Election Day or even during early voting and engaging in acts of voter intimidation, showing up wearing camouflage and body armor with their AR-15s, and euphemistically doing what they call voter integrity or voter protection. But really, the ultimate end is to dissuade people from engaging in their democratic right of casting a ballot. Also on Election Day, we've picked up a number of organizations who are dedicated to gumming up the works and slowing the process inside the polls.

"So there are a number of different far right organizations who have recruited volunteers, some with former military backgrounds, to be inside the polls as poll watchers and as elections poll officials to challenge ballots, to challenge signatures, to challenge registrations and to slow the process. To make it harder for people to cast a ballot on Election Day so that the long lines we're already seeing in early voting, we anticipate if their plans come to fruition could make it even more difficult for people to get into the doors to get a ballot to cast it on Election Day.”

Do we have an electoral system that's prepared to deal with possible violence if it were to happen in November?

Mary B. McCord: “I think that we're getting there. We're getting prepared. I've been talking with state and local elected officials, leaders in law enforcement, in just city leadership, in election leadership for weeks now, trying to get prepared. You know, I come from a law enforcement background and my belief is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And what we're seeing is massive numbers of voters coming out. And the best antidote, I think, to threats of voter intimidation and violence is to come out massively to vote.

“And that's regardless of what side you're on. Come out massively and show that the way we do this in America is by choosing ideas and policies and voting and not by intimidation and being at the end of a firearm. So I think ... we're seeing more and more state attorneys generals, and more and more local police officials, local district attorneys come out and make strong statements and gather with other local officials, including faith leaders, community leaders, and denounce any type of voter intimidation. Denounce any type of violence and ensure the population that they're there to protect their right to vote."

Who can challenge a ballot?

Mary B. McCord: "It varies state to state. And unfortunately, some states are incredibly permissive about who can challenge a ballot. Other states have much tighter restraints and limit who can challenge those ballots. ... So an important thing for voters out there and election officials is to know what their own state laws are. But most importantly for voters is to know that you have a right to cast your ballot. Voter challengers are not allowed to actually challenge you directly face to face. If they want to make a challenge, they need to do it through the election officials. And you still are entitled to cast your ballot, either a regular ballot or a provisional ballot. So if you hear that your vote is being challenged, if you learn that from an election official, you must insist on your right to cast your ballot.”

On what it means to defend democracy in this moment 

Eric K. Ward: “We are no longer in an either-or equation. But we should remember that there are more Americans today who support Black Lives Matter, including white Americans, than supported Martin Luther King, Jr. during his entire lifetime. Support for an inclusive democracy that is people-centered, accountable and transparent is the majority of America. That is the aspiration. It doesn't mean we all see it in the same way, but that is the conversation that most Americans choose to have.

"Still, we have to be vigilant about small groups that seek to use violence to intimidate. They can have influence on the mainstream. They can certainly, through the use of intimidation and violence, sink those conversations. And we should be prepared for Election Day where these groups have said that they will do just that. We should take them for their word. Attorney generals should participate in diverse, permanent, ongoing task forces that address this issue. We all have to speak up. Now, all segments of civil society. Business, civic and religious leaders, media and elected officials, we need to be crystal clear that we oppose political violence and we should not wait till Election Day to start saying that.

"And we should push paramilitary leaders to do the same, to denounce political violence and to pledge to oppose any political violence. And the last thing I would just say is, as Americans, we should check on our neighbors. We should remember that our neighbors are made up of individuals who have survived political violence in other countries. They don't understand that this is a small majority. What they are hearing is rhetoric that reminds them of their own dangerous lives that they have escaped from. And we have a duty to one another. The way we oppose the paramilitary movement is to ensure our local governments act and that we do the job of building real intimacy with our neighbors. That's what it means to defend democracy in this moment.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: "Opinion: The Plot Against Gretchen Whitmer Shows the Danger of Private Militias" — "In the swirls of disinformation that now pollute our political discourse, one is particularly dangerous: that private militias are constitutionally protected."

Washington Post: "Mary McCord: Trump crosses the constitutional line" — "President Donald Trump incited insurrection Friday against the duly-elected governors of the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia."

CNN: "White supremacists remain deadliest US terror threat, Homeland Security report says" — "White supremacist extremists will remain the deadliest domestic terror threat to the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security's first annual homeland threat assessment, which details a range of threats from election interference to unprecedented storms."

Washington Post: "Justice Dept., FBI planning for the possibility of Election Day violence, voting disruptions" — "Bracing for possible civil unrest on Election Day, the Justice Department is planning to station officials in a command center at FBI headquarters to coordinate the federal response to any disturbances or other problems with voting that may arise across the country, officials familiar with the matter said."

Southern Poverty Law Center: "Anti-Blackness & White Nationalism: A Call to Black America" — "These are hard times for Black America. Black communities are disproportionately devastated by COVID-19 – one in 500 of us is projected to die from the virus by January 1 – along with police violence and criminalization, wage inequities, healthcare disparities, environmental toxins, and hate crimes."

The Guardian: "'Our worst nightmare': will militias heed Trump's call to watch the polls?" — "In the final minutes of last week’s televised presidential debate, a few days before he tested positive for Covid-19, Donald Trump was asked by the moderator, Chris Wallace, whether he would call on his supporters to stay calm and desist from civil unrest in the immediate aftermath of next month’s election."

Washington Post: "Donald Trump doesn’t really care about the white supremacist threat, and you’re not going to make him" — "At the end of the day, President Trump has been consistently clear about his view of white supremacist violence. If you expect him to spontaneously denounce it, you’ll be waiting a while."

The Guardian: "Trump's refusal to condemn white supremacy fits pattern of extremist rhetoric" — "Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy during Tuesday night’s debate fits into a pattern of extremist rhetoric that has already baselessly stoked fear of voting fraud amid the president’s urging of his supporters to descend on polling stations in November’s election."

New York Times: "Election Officials Are Preparing for Potential Unrest at the Polls" — "The day after the presidential debate, the phones began to ring at the clerk’s office in Ada County, Idaho, with a handful of residents worried about their safety at the polls. Election officials hastily added training for poll workers on what to do if someone shows up armed."

Washington Post: "Contested elections can unleash violent white supremacy. We have seen it before." — "Last week, President Trump declined to commit to accepting the results of the election."

This program aired on October 15, 2020.


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Hilary McQuilkin is a producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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