Oct 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Extremist groups are going local to disrupt the midterms

Illustration of a ballot box surrounded by barbed wire.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As Election Day draws near, mayors and police chiefs across the country are getting a new warning: Extremists have jettisoned their nationwide election intimidation strategy in favor of local efforts focused on neighborhood ballot boxes.

Why it matters: Groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers are looking to sway the upcoming midterms in favor of their preferred candidates by signing up as poll workers and drop-box watchers.

Driving the news: The U.S. Conference of Mayors held an event this week warning of decentralized election interference efforts targeting local voters, candidates and election workers.

  • "We've seen them dismantle some of their nationwide organizations," said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a former Justice Department prosecutor.
  • "So the Proud Boys dismantle nationally in favor of state chapters — the Three Percenters did the same," she told the mayors.
  • The change began after the 2020 election and grew more pronounced after the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack.

State of play: "We're seeing similar types of threats today" as in the 2020 elections, McCord said — but now the attacks are coming from a "very ground-up, localized effort."

  • For example: In 50 out of 67 Pennsylvania counties, election chiefs have left because of threats, harassment and intimidation against them and their families, McCord said.
  • "We've seen a GOP candidate in Idaho have an effigy hung in his yard," she said. "We've seen a Democratic candidate in eastern Washington be shot with a BB gun while putting up signs."
  • "These are very localized efforts. They're very threatening, and they continue to grow."

What extremists are saying: "Focus on county over country. Capture your local county, then several of them, then maybe your state," McCord said, quoting from a post on right-wing social network Gab.

In one tactic, extremists are signing up as poll watchers and workers, trying to use legitimate means to infiltrate and disrupt elections.

  • A Proud Boy who worked at the polls in Miami in an August primary exhorted group members to do the same during the midterms, telling them: "We need to be at every polling station this November and have eyes and truth-telling patriots monitoring on the ground," McCord said.
  • "Some of the responses were, 'It's time for mortal combat,'" she said. "That's the kind of rhetoric around some of the poll-watching activity."
  • In one high-profile voter intimidation episode, armed vigilantes in tactical gear were seen watching over a Mesa, Arizona, mail-in ballot drop box.

Also girding for action: The "Constitutional Sheriffs" movement, a fringe group that believes sheriffs hold supreme legal power and can exercise it during elections.

One tactic that proved effective in 2020: Public officials issuing strong statements about how vigorously they would prosecute voter intimidation or harassment, McCord said.

  • Part of the message should be that "armed activity around the polls that is intimidating won't be tolerated."
  • 911 dispatchers should be told to prioritize calls about problems at the polls and send officers promptly, said Charles Ramsey, a former police chief in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and currently an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
  • Police chiefs need to "make it very clear to our personnel that their particular political viewpoints do not matter," Ramsey said. "They have a job to do, and they're going to be expected to be held accountable for doing that job and doing it properly."

Backdrop: Election offices are installing bulletproof glass, bulking up on security and conducting active-shooter trainings.

  • Rising threats are prompting a shortage of election workers — which extremists could use to their advantage.

The bottom line: Municipal and county leaders have a heavy responsibility to safeguard the upcoming midterms — which could serve as a dress rehearsal for the 2024 presidential election.

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