Poll monitoring raises specter of election violence. Is it real?

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On the eve of midterm elections in America – as Jan. 6 insurrectionists remain on trial, as candidates nationwide deny the results from 2020, as the president warns of a “path to chaos” – experts on voting and extremism want to make two things clear.

First, voting in the United States remains extraordinarily safe. 

Second, as millions of Americans still seethe over the 2020 election and cast doubt on the fairness of the electoral process, spurred on by lies and disinformation, the possibility remains of tense confrontations or even violence at polling places this week.

Election workers are stepping down in droves after being harassed and threatened, misinformation has ramped up, and volunteer groups are stepping in with de-escalation training to be used at polling places. 

Organizations pushing spurious claims of voter fraud now call for volunteers to patrol polling stations and election infrastructure in some states. That raises the likelihood of tense interactions between election critics and election officials and voters. 

Meanwhile, observers worry increased tensions could also come in the days and weeks post-election, especially in communities where election deniers are on the ballot or where election results are especially close or delayed.

It’s a new normal for everyone – election officials, law enforcement officers and individual voters – who should be on alert, but not panicked, as they cast their votes, said Jared Holt, a senior researcher at the think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and an expert on domestic extremism.

“When it comes to risks at the polls, I keep telling people to be vigilant, but not paranoid,” Holt said. ”Vigilance means being aware of some of the different things that you might see at polling locations and how to respond to those, whereas paranoia looks like believing armed goons are waiting outside your polling station now and maybe you just don’t want to go vote at all, because you’re worried about it.”

More:Biden’s closing argument before midterms

More:The week in extremism, from USA TODAY

The extremist threat 

Several experts on extremism told USA TODAY the same thing: Domestic extremist groups and organizations seeking to sow doubt in the electoral process thrive on spreading the message they’re going to show up in force on election day and confront and harass voters. But in reality that seldom actually happens, said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“I am suspicious about a lot of these reports of plans to observe polling places, and to make sure the wrong voters aren’t voting,” Johnson-Blanco said. “All of that serves as a chilling effect — you don’t necessarily need to show, but just the fact that it’s being reported may keep voters away.” 

Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project, at a press conference in June 2021.

Johnson-Blanco said election-related harassment has historically been disproportionately focused on communities of color, particularly in neighborhoods where there is a high proportion of people who do not speak English as their first language.

In past years, extremist groups, particularly the armed anti-government organization the Oath Keepers, have been on the front line of election harassment. In 2018 and 2020, Oath Keepers pledged to patrol voting places in large numbers. But there were ultimately very few reports of harassment from Oath Keepers or other extremists. 

In 2022, extremist groups have focused their hatred on other targets, particularly LGBTQ-friendly events like family-friendly drag shows, Holt said. 

“A lot of Proud Boys chapters and other extremist movements are busy at the moment harassing gay people for existing,” Holt said. “We’re seeing way more calls for Proud Boys chapters to go protest drag events than we are seeing the Proud Boys trying to encourage their people to be poll workers or something like that.”   

Spreading misinformation 

A man takes photos of people exiting and entering the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center on Oct. 19, 2022, in Phoenix.

Johnson-Blanco and other experts said this year they are most concerned groups that specialize in spreading misinformation about elections have been steadily ramping up their presence at the polls on election days. 

Like extremist groups in years past, the organizations driving these misinformation campaigns say they are  efforts to document voter fraud – even though such cases almost never really occur.

These groups are openly encouraging volunteers to “monitor” polling places, film the electoral process and even set up hidden cameras at locations where votes are dropped off.   

Compounding the issue, several states have loosened their restrictions on what so-called “election observers” can and cannot do, legally, said Sophia Lin Lakin, interim co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

So while such monitors may not hassle voters in person, their false claims lead to more harassment of election officials, Lakin said.

“All of that is making the situation worse,” she said. 

In some states, harassment from those quarters, often from people who falsely claim Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election, has already had a negative impact on the democratic process.

Ten of Nevada’s 17 counties have seen their top election official resign, retire or decline to seek re-election since the 2020 vote, which the state government calls a drastic exodus, according to Reuters.

Voters at a Las Vegas polling place, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.

Arizona has seen some of the most divisive debates over election security since the 2020 presidential election, and several candidates on the ballot have campaigned in part on the lies that the last election was corrupt.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, a federal judge on Nov. 1 ordered a group of self-appointed election monitors to dial back their presence at ballot drop-off locations, ordering them to stop wearing body armor or carry visible firearms within 250 feet of the box. The judge also banned them from yelling at or otherwise confronting people dropping off ballots, and ordered their leader to post a statement about the legality of ballot drops to her Trump-backed Truth Social network account.

Destroying the system from within

Looming over this year’s elections is the specter of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Inspired by lies and disinformation, the Capitol riot was, at its core, aimed at stopping the certification of the 2020 election. It remains a stark example of electoral interference that experts worry inspires would-be wrongdoers as much as it troubles election workers.      

That idea – that those who dislike an election’s outcome can use violence shut it down – has spread from the Capitol riot to the ballot, with dozens of election deniers running for office across the country. 

What worries Olivia Troye, a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, is that candidates who undermine the election process are learning that their conspiracy theories earn them votes.

She warned that even if voting is peaceful – and she worries it won’t be – some candidates will put themselves in a position to destroy the system from within.

“Things have gotten worse because of this monitoring, this intimidation. The seed has been planted since 2020 and it’s gotten worse,” she said. “And the threats to election officials are getting worse.”

Troye, a lifelong Republican, quit the White House in August 2020 over the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. She endorsed Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

“We have an entire anti-democracy operation happening before our very eyes,” Troye said. “There has been an ongoing effort focused on changing the rules of elections, and changing the referees who oversee elections, so that they can change the results and overrule the will of the people,” she said. “All of this is correlated to the long term effect of the lies they’ve been told by the political leaders they embrace. We saw what it led to on Jan. 6th and that sentiment hasn’t dissipated.”

Law enforcement ‘standing by’

In Arizona, despite the recent judge’s order, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said his deputies are prepared to intervene swiftly if they see any evidence of intimidation or violence. 

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone addresses the media on matters relating to election security in the media room in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office headquarters in Phoenix on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.

“We’re staffing and preparing for a worst-case scenario. We’re not going to tolerate anything,” Penzone told USA TODAY. “We want to make it abundantly clear that there’s zero tolerance for anyone whose intentions are to interfere with, undermine or adversely affect the electoral process.”

Penzone said he recognizes most observers are doing nothing more than exercising their Constitutional rights to gather or bear arms, and promised deputies would respect and protect those rights.

But Penzone, a Democrat who defeated the Trump-aligned Joe Arpaio in 2016, said he’d draw a hard line at anything intended to be intimidating. 

“It’s not partisan. It’s not emotional. It’s not subjective,” he said.

The Department of Justice is working with U.S. Attorneys and specially trained FBI agents at 56 field offices to handle Election Day complaints about election fraud and voter intimidation, a standard practice.

Those DOJ teams will be stationed around the country while the polls are open. People who need to report voter intimidation should first call 911 for their local law enforcement agency, and then contact the Justice Department, officials said in a news release. And concerns about voting-related civil rights violations should be directed to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. 

In New York state, where Democrats have held the governor’s mansion since 2006 but this year’s race has become unexpectedly close, sheriffs statewide are prepared if needed. In addition to providing security at polling places, sheriffs in New York can be ordered to impound and secure ballots during disputes.

“We’re standing by,” said Peter Kehoe, executive director of the New York Sheriffs Association. “Hopefully all goes smoothly in New York. And if it doesn’t, we’ll be ready.”

Election workers trained and prepared

Even in states where intimidation and violence hasn’t yet been a major factor during this election cycle, the mood surrounding elections is much more tense than it was just a few years ago, election experts said. 

A television news crew interviews people watching, photographing, and recording people as they exit and enter the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center on Oct. 19, 2022, in Phoenix.

State and local voting officials, mediation experts and peacekeepers are focusing on de-escalation training, increased security and rapid-response measures — strategies added in just the last few years out of a sense of preparation and precaution.

“Some of the long-time clerks tell me that 10 or 20 years ago, they were greeted on Election Day with pies and hugs. They tell me that it’s a very different environment sometimes now,” Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows told USA TODAY.

Rising political tensions parallel the increases in election misinformation and outright falsehoods, especially those that followed former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election and the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“I think the biggest trend that we are seeing is the epidemic of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, when people believe lies about the 2020 election or think (it) was stolen,” Bellows said. “That, as we saw at the events of Jan. 6th, can motivate some individuals to take violent action.” 

After two threats against local elections clerks in Maine — one online and one in-person — the state Legislature passed bipartisan legislation last year making threats against elections officials a crime to be investigated by the state attorney general. The legislature also instituted de-escalation training for local election clerks overseen by Bellows’ office and security assessments for polling places and municipal offices conducted in concert with the national Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Bellows said.

Election peacemakers

A group of faith leaders and social workers, operating as part of the religious political group Faith in Public Life, began responding to polling-place conflicts in 2021. The group, which uses de-escalation strategies to try to defuse potential clashes, began its election work in 2020 and is ready to respond in 2022, said the Rev. Dan Clark, Ohio director for Faith in Public Life.

“A lot of times, an election peacekeeper won’t necessarily square up with the intimidator and try to solve whatever problem they’re creating. Instead, an election peacekeeper often shows up in solidarity with the voters and brings that calming presence so that they can stay in line confidently and vote,” he said.

Clark warns against overstating the severity of the problem. His group’s peacekeepers responded to just five polling-place conflicts in the 22 Ohio counties that the group covered during the 2020 campaign – all on Election Day and the weekend preceding it. 

It hasn’t been called in yet this year during early voting.

But the mood at voting sites has changed in recent years, raising the prospects for potential intimidation and violence, said Clark. And ominously, in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection and other instances of political violence, this year’s peacekeeper training included a new element, lessons in how to respond to an active-shooter situation, he said. 

Conflict resolution and de-escalation skills traditionally focused on confrontation and violence in high-pressure situations like contested divorces and workplace rage are now being tailored to the increasingly stressful world of elections.

For four decades, the Mediation Center, a non-profit organization serving Savannah, Georgia, and the surrounding area, has offered mediation and conflict-resolution services to government agencies and other groups, often dealing with workplace and domestic conflicts that can become violent. Only this year did it start getting deeply involved in training election workers, at the request of government workers, said Dan Rowe, the Mediation Center’s senior manager of community programs.

Training consists of lessons on situational awareness; finding ways to use language to avoid increasing agitation; and planning ahead for different conflict situations to avoid making mistakes under the pressure of a threatening situation, Rowe said.

Even if not all the training and security is needed now, it can help de-escalation experts and election workers get ready for the future.

“2022 isn’t the last election that ever gets held,” Rowe said. “We’ve got races coming up in 2023. We’ve got the big one in 2024. I don’t want to say prepare for the worst, because that sounds very pessimistic. But be prepared is the goal.”

Rowe doesn’t expect polling-place peace to be achieved by 2024, either. “I haven’t heard any indicators that the temperature is going down,” he said.

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