US: Police, experts monitoring extremist groups to see if poll watchers try to disrupt voting

Election 2020: How to spot voter intimidation and what to do

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The potential for disruption and violence at polling sites has perhaps never been greater as voters cast their ballots for president Tuesday amid a global pandemic and threats of civil unrest.

a group of people walking down the street: Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. © Gerry Broome, AP Early voters line up to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

President Donald Trump, who has falsely claimed voter fraud is widespread, has called for an army of poll watchers to ensure the election is fair. Right-wing extremist groups have signaled they plan to heed the call. Left-wing groups have vowed to confront people they believe are engaged in voter suppression.

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Extremist groups are planning actions in key states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which has been tracking extremists on social media. Those states, along with Georgia and Oregon, face the highest risk of election-related activity by armed vigilante groups, according to a report by MilitiaWatch and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

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But how that will play out Tuesday is unclear. “Much of the chatter among the unlawful militias is now in a little bit (of) dissent about whether it is wise to deploy to polling places,” said Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, in a videoconference Monday.

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Know your voting rights: Here's what to do if you encounter intimidation at the polls on Election Day

The leader of a right-wing extremist group in Georgia said he has “troops” ready to descend on polling places if he hears reports of voter fraud. His group is part of the “three percenter” movement, which is based on the false claim that only 3% of Americans fought in the Revolutionary War against the British.

“We’re going in undercover to start with,” Justin Thayer said. “We don’t want to intimidate anyone, and we’re not aligned with any political party, but if we do discover fraud, we have guys on standby, and if we need to shut down a precinct, we will.”

Law enforcement prepared for extremist violence on Election Day

The Department of Homeland Security predicted last month that polling places could be “flashpoints” for extremist violence. Armed, far-right groups have signaled their willingness, even eagerness, to take matters into their own hands at polling places and centers of political power.

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Stuart Rhodes, founder of the Trump-supporting Oath Keepers group, told the conspiracy theory-driven website Infowars that his members are essentially planning for a civil war.

“Frankly, we’re concerned about a Benghazi-style attack,” Rhodes said in the interview, referring to the 2012 attack against American embassy facilities in Libya. “That’s why Oath Keepers will be posted outside of D.C. We’ve got some of our best men working on the plan right now.”

Experts say that in addition to stirring up conspiracy theories, threats like that are designed to discourage voters from turning out.

State and federal law enforcement have been preparing for months. In major cities and rural outposts, they have been drawing up plans and conducting drills, officials said.

“I have a very clear message for any person who wants to disrupt this election: Do not try it here in Baltimore or anywhere in the country,” said Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who serves as vice president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national policing think tank. “Do not try to frighten, intimidate or harass any voter. Collectively, we will stop you and we will hold you accountable.”

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In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said emergency management and law enforcement officials have gamed out a number of scenarios: arson, COVID-19 outbreaks and violence from Election Day through the presidential inauguration in January.

“Win or lose,” she said, “someone's going to be unhappy.”

In a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll last week, three out of four Americans said they were concerned about potential violence on Election Day.

But Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said worries about Election Day clashes are overblown.

“The handful of groups that seek to be a nuisance during our election will find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people showing up to vote,” Clarke said. “Those tactics may have worked in the Jim Crow era, but not today.”

Laws ban electioneering near polling places, voter intimidation

Laws in most states prohibit electioneering within buffer zones around polling places. Other than voters and poll workers, access to those sites is typically limited to official poll watchers who aren’t allowed to interfere with or intimidate voters.

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Federal law says "no person … shall intimidate, threaten, (or) coerce … any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of (that) person to vote or to vote as he may choose."

The American Civil Liberties Union says examples of prohibited behavior include impersonating an election official or aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, qualifications or criminal record “in a manner intended to interfere with the voters’ rights.”

Voters who encounter or witness intimidation can call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), the U.S. Department of Justice voting rights hotline at 1-800-253-3931, or, if threatened by violence, 911.

Laws don’t bar people from expressing their political views outside polling site buffer zones, including participating in rallies or vehicle parades, as long as they don’t block access to polling sites.

There have been scattered reports of flag-waving vehicle caravans — so-called “Trump trains” — at early voting sites. At one site in Virginia, officials had to provide escorts last month when voters said they felt threatened by a throng of Trump supporters outside.

Over the weekend, caravans of Trump supporters were reported in several states. In New Jersey, a vehicle parade snarled traffic on a highway bridge. In Kentucky, drivers in a caravan of about 100 vehicles displaying Trump signs clashed with protesters.

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In Texas on Friday, a group of trucks bearing Trump flags surrounded a Joe Biden campaign bus, leading Democrats on board to call 911.

“I LOVE TEXAS!” the president tweeted about the incident.

At a rally in Pennsylvania on Monday, Trump criticized a ruling by Pennsylvania’s high court allowing mailed ballots to be counted if received up to three days after the election. He called it a "very dangerous situation, and I mean, dangerous physically."

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Trump campaign aimed to recruit 50,000 poll watchers

The Trump campaign set a goal of recruiting 50,000 poll watchers, and the president has repeatedly urged followers to join his “army,” claiming without evidence the election is rigged and Democrats are trying to “steal it.”

A spokeswoman for his campaign, Thea McDonald, has said poll watchers are “critical to ensuring the fairness of any election,” and those recruited by the campaign “will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally.”

For decades, the Republican National Committee had to submit poll-watching plans to a judge for approval.

That requirement came after the party hired off-duty officers and stationed them in minority precincts during New Jersey’s 1981 governor’s election. They wore armbands saying “National Ballot Security Task Force” and demanded Black and Latino voters show voter registration cards.

The poll-watching consent decree expired in 2018. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt has said volunteers now undergo “rigorous” training and are not there to intimidate voters.

Experts watching for flare-ups

Experts on extremist activity say the real danger may come from outside the polls — from a false news story or social media post alleging cheating somewhere.

Poll watchers emerge as a flashpoint in battle over ballots

  Poll watchers emerge as a flashpoint in battle over ballots Election officials in key battleground states pushed back on claims by the Trump campaign that Republican poll watchers were being improperly denied access to observe the counting of ballots, saying Thursday that rules were being followed and they were committed to transparency. Tasked this year with monitoring a record number of mail ballots, partisan poll watchers are designated by a political party or campaign to report any concerns they may have. With a few reports of overly aggressive poll watchers, election officials said they were carefully balancing access with the need to minimize disruptions.

“That could be something that could bring people out to polling places pretty rapidly,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups.

MilitiaWatch and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project have tracked more than 80 armed groups this year. They said nine large, multi-state right-wing groups could present problems, including the Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Light Foot Militia, Civilian Defense Force, American Contingency, Patriot Prayer, Boogaloo Bois and People’s Rights.

These groups range widely in membership numbers and goals, but they skew conservative and support Trump.

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Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said there may not be violence or armed conflict at all. But he cited another possibility: that extremist groups could leave their camouflage at home, put on red Make America Great Again hats, and look for sympathizers among Trump supporters.

“They're looking for new recruits,” Burghart said. “They think that there are people in those crowds who are sympathetic and who might want to join up.”

With uncertainty over how quickly votes will be tallied and how soon a winner will emerge, tensions are likely to continue for days or weeks to come, experts said.

“We’re going to enter a higher period of risk for potential violence,” said Daryl Johnson, a security consultant and former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security. “People’s paranoia and fear will reach a new pitch, due to the uncertainty and anxiety related to the election.”

Contributing: Josh Peter, Courtney Subramanian, David Jackson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police, experts monitoring extremist groups to see if poll watchers try to disrupt voting

Poll watchers emerge as a flashpoint in battle over ballots .
Election officials in key battleground states pushed back on claims by the Trump campaign that Republican poll watchers were being improperly denied access to observe the counting of ballots, saying Thursday that rules were being followed and they were committed to transparency. Tasked this year with monitoring a record number of mail ballots, partisan poll watchers are designated by a political party or campaign to report any concerns they may have. With a few reports of overly aggressive poll watchers, election officials said they were carefully balancing access with the need to minimize disruptions.

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