At 2020’s first (and perhaps only) presidential debate, President Trump’s plea to his “people” to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” got the attention of voting advocates and militia members alike. And no wonder: private militias have become a very visible symbol of polarized America, and have been deploying themselves with increasing belligerence at anti-racism rallies and other social protests. Last week, in a sign portending major escalation of militia violence, 13 men were arrested in a kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
But this election is unfolding against a backdrop where a variety of militias and other right-wing groups have felt emboldened, in large part by Trump’s repeated refusal to denounce them, and, at times, his tacit encouragement of them. Trump didn’t specify how his “people” should monitor urban polling centers, to counter unfounded claims of “massive voter fraud,” nor did he say which such groups should go to the polls, except for a shout-out to the Proud Boys to “stand by.”
One group, the Oath Keepers, has even provided “security” at Trump events, and earlier this year, when Trump tweeted that his impeachment meant America was on the brink of a civil war, the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, apparently agreed in a tweet that has been attributed to him: “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are.” Rhodes has said the group’s goal is “to get patriots prepared and ready to defend their homes, towns, and counties from the ongoing Marxist insurrection we now see erupting and expanding nationwide.”
Just days before the Whitmer kidnapping plot was exposed, the Department of Homeland Security had released its first annual Homeland Threat Assessment, summarizing domestic terrorism threats and warning “ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups” of “Domestic Violent Extremists” are now a likely terrorist threat. Last month, a report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence predicted that “significant numbers of people will bring guns to polling places under the guise of preventing election fraud.”
Militias, freelancing “poll watchers” and guys with guns
Both voter intimidation and election dirty tricks in the U.S. are nothing new, and just earlier this month two men were charged with four felony counts for disseminating robocalls in majority-Black Detroit that claimed that if listeners voted by mail they could be subject to arrest, debt collection and forced vaccination.
Although California is not considered a swing state, the state GOP is engaging what could be considered a dirty trick—setting up unofficial ballot drop boxes in front of conservative churches, gun stores and other likely Republican gathering spots in several counties, in defiance of a cease and desist order by the secretary of state and attorney general. The motive is unclear, but observers have said it could be an attempt to muddy election results or claim voter fraud if votes deposited in the boxes aren’t counted.