Oct 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Cities brace for Election Day chaos

Illustration of a voter booth surrounded by security sensors

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Worst-case scenarios for Election Day: Illegal militias show up fully armed at polling places. People are intimidated from voting. Extremist groups launch violent protests that last for days.

Why it matters: Mayors are playing down the threats — projecting a "we've got this" tone of reassurance — but some law enforcement officials and people who monitor extremists are telling them to be prepared for anything.

Driving the news: With the pandemic, the polarizing presidential race, and the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd's killing, cities and states are taking unusual measures ahead of Nov. 3. The word "de-escalation" is being used a lot.

  • In Albuquerque, D.A. Raúl Torrez tells Axios he plans to staff "a war room of senior level prosecutors" who will be available on Election Day to help police officers handle specific disruptions.
  • Iowa just implemented a suite of cybersecurity measures to combat electoral fraud.
  • Michigan hired its first full-time election security specialist (and announced Friday that voters won't be able to openly carry their guns inside the polls).
  • Police forces across the nation are being prepped on local rules and laws; they're not allowed inside polls unless they're actually voting.

Where it stands: An Ipsos poll for Axios found that Americans of color are disproportionately worried about armed militias or police waiting for them at the polls.

  • "For a long time, our analysis has been that white nationalism poses a direct threat — certainly for communities and communities of color, immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities — and also to democratic institutions," Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center, who leads a program to combat white nationalism, tells Axios.

The details: "There is significant concern that we may see voter intimidation efforts and protests, some possibly violent, in the days leading up to November 3, on that day, and on the days following," according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

  • Ad-hoc (and deadly) militias like the "Kenosha Guard," which mustered on Facebook to defend the city "from the illegal thugs" who protested the police shooting of James Blake, can be "summoned with a few keystrokes," per the NYT.
  • At September's presidential debate, President Trump urged people to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
  • He also suggested that the Proud Boys "stand back and stand by."
  • In a guidance for local officials, Everytown for Gun Safety noted that "intimidating voters or election personnel is illegal, and that includes armed intimidation."

Rules governing poll watchers differ by state. In states like Georgia, North Dakota and South Carolina, for example, they're required to "wear a badge indicating their name and organization," per the National Conference of State Legislatures.

  • There are concerns this year about the "right to challenge," which "in many states allow[s] private citizens to challenge the eligibility of individual voters," per the Brennan Center for Justice.
  • "We have seen some explicit messages from groups like the Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters Security Force that have indicated that they're shifting their focus to potentially showing up [at] the polls," says Schubiner, whose group monitors extremists' communications.

What's at stake: Democracy hangs in the balance, several left-leaning politicians argued in interviews with Axios. And officials and groups on both sides of the aisle said there's a fine line between making sure everyone is prepared vs. having a potentially intimidating police presence.

  • Torrez, the district attorney of Bernalillo County (which includes Albuquerque), points out that making an arrest at a polling location could itself be disruptive.
  • "As a career prosecutor, I never imagined a moment in my life where I would have to come up with a communication strategy to specifically rebut some of the things" that the White House seemed to be saying, "but these are these are sort of bizarre times."

What they're saying: Several mayors told Axios they were confident the election would proceed as intended.

  • Tampa Mayor Jane Castor: "There’s a heightened concern. We have heard about the possibility of having individuals at polling sites intent on disrupting the ability of people to freely vote, but we don't know if it's just an urban legend. We try to monitor in a preventive way. I don’t expect that we will have any issues."
  • Austin Mayor Steve Adler: "What people are more concerned about than anything else right now is the fear of things as opposed to an indication that the fears would actually be realized."
  • Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney: "People need to cancel out the noise. If you voted in the past, you know exactly how to do it. And I think people [should] just do that forthrightly, not worrying about some guy with a MAGA hat screaming in your face. Just walk on by and go exercise your right to vote — that's how we beat this back."
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