At first glance, the terrorist threat that recently captivated the nation—a thwarted attempt by a militia cell to kidnap Governors Gretchen Whitmer and Ralph Northam—may appear to be an anomaly—a one-off plot hatched by a fringe group influenced by the “boogaloo” movement, but with fewer followers. Or it could be part of a pattern of growing extremist activity in the run up to the 2020 presidential elections. Our efforts at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) currently focus on mitigating the potential for Election Day violence.
While there is no way to predict what will actually take place over the next few weeks leading up to and directly after the election, the ADL’s monitoring of extremist groups suggests that election-motivated violence could yield more domestic terrorism threats, which if fully realized, could pose a threat to ensuring free and fair elections.
Extremists, ranging from anti-government to white supremacist, and others, have been growing their ranks since the beginning of the pandemic. Stay-at-home regulations have led to the spread of a variety of online conspiracy theories. This has some far right and left extremists increasingly viewing the impending election through an apocalyptic lens. Data from Moonshot CVE, a group that ADL partners with in its research, show that references to a “Second Civil War” and lamentations that there are “no political solutions” to the nation’s challenges (implying there are violent solutions) have spiked in recent months. While both the far left and right are engaging in dystopian warnings, the threat of election-related violence largely emanates from right-wing extremists.
There is cause for concern, but there is not yet cause for panic—it is still not clear how much of the internet chatter may be bluster, or if the threat represents a true danger. Moreover, in the remaining weeks before the election—and notably, the critical time following the election where conspiracies may reach an apex—there are simple, turnkey steps state and local policymakers can take now to address these threats in ways that will have a meaningful near-term impact.
One component of mitigating threats is ensuring effective communication and transparency with the public. State and local leaders can take one quick and immediate step: issue a bipartisan statement condemning violence, like both candidates for governor of Utah did last week. Extremists are watching mainstream politics and exploiting social fissures. By promoting unity, officials and the public can undermine their narratives and make it difficult for groups to recruit and operate without being reported by bystanders. In one recent example, after protests that turned violent, Oregon’s leading officials—including the governor, state legislators and many others—issued a strong statement condemning violence and hate. Public communication can be even more effective with a credible messenger tailored for a specific audience. When fringe figures attempt to stoke chaos or violence, a credible figure—like a local community leader, religious leader or niche celebrity such as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter or war hero—can convey to potentially violent actors that violence is anathema to democratic values.
Officials should be openly communicating with the public about their steps to safeguard the vote and efforts to debunk conspiracies. While it is critical that policymakers not create panic or spread fear, transparency can help the U.S. public hold the government accountable. Officials who clarify that they understand the threat and are addressing it can reduce panic. One example can be found in the state of New Jersey, which recently released a supplement to its annual terrorist threat assessment focused on the unique conditions associated with the 2020 election. While the scenarios the state lays out are worrisome, the supplement helps the public understand that its leaders are aware of the threats and preparing for them.
Tools for Law Enforcement
There are a variety of ways state and local law enforcement can mitigate election-motivated violence. To start, they can raise the priority level of the threat. Law enforcement have finite resources and must clearly convey to their teams which issues deserve their top attention. Through at least February 2021, ADL recommends that extremist-motivated violence and activity be a top priority for resourcing and officer awareness. To be clear, police should not proactively patrol polling places, a move which could inadvertently suppress votes. However, law enforcement should address the networks of extremist actors who commit unlawful acts and be on guard to react immediately in the event of emergency.
Existing laws and clear communications from those enforcing them can help reduce the likelihood that inevitable protests remain peaceful. Permitting restrictions, for example, can help counter extremist threats while also empowering political speech.
There are many state laws that address extremist threats. Law enforcement can address unlawful behavior by malign actors using legal tools ranging from hate crime laws to state domestic terrorism laws and even firearm permits, among other ways. To raise public awareness and empower poll workers, Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) created fact sheets for every state on what is lawful and, by extension, what it might look like to observe unlawful behavior at or near a polling site and how to report concerns. In the event that hate incidents rise during this time of social tension, ADL has made available a new reporting tool to enable the public to report incidents that they witness and concerns they have.
Law enforcement can also be proactive in preventing protester and counter-protester clashes, which can inflame tensions and play into the hands of those who wish to incite violence. The most infamous example is the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer. One week later, Boston police deployed 500 police officers to a similar protest and counter-protest in Boston. Rather than breaking up the protest or inhibiting the exercise of free speech, law enforcement focused on keeping protesters and counter-protesters separated. In the inevitable protests that arise in the coming weeks, reducing direct contact between protesters and counter-protesters will be a critical tool to mitigate the likelihood of violence.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring recently gave helpful guidance to law enforcement. In September, he issued an official advisory opinion in response to reports of intimidation at polling places. The advisory reinforces state and federal laws against voter intimidation and harassment. It states, clearly and unequivocally, “it is a criminal offense for private individuals to usurp the role of actual law enforcement, and it is accordingly unlawful to appear at the polls attempting to exercise roles that rightfully belong to the government.” The opinion noted that this can include private self-named “militia” members acting as perceived members of authority under the pretense of crowd control or otherwise. This specific guidance can mitigate the threat of voter intimidation by individuals claiming to promote safety who are in fact rogue actors. Similar guidance can address a range of concerns and can help state and local law enforcement better understand their role in promoting election integrity while protecting communities from extremist violence. Urging early voting in states offering that option, and protecting those polling places, can also decrease the chance of large crowds and chaotic situations on election day itself.
Resources for Policymakers
The threat of election-motivated violence is a real challenge for policymakers. But there are resources available to help them manage the threat. ADL has worked with state policymakers nationwide to better inform them on simple practices such as resource-sharing, effective public statements and other basic steps that can help mitigate threats. Our team distilled lessons learned into a guide covering seven categories and 18 immediate actions that state and local policymakers can take right now. These concepts are simple and able to be implemented quickly.
Officials can become more familiar with these issues using existing research and expertise. For example, ADL’s data on hate and extremism shows where historical threats have taken place. This data can help state and local leaders familiarize themselves with threats and possible hotspots of concern. ADL has shared this data through its online and interactive Hate, Extremism, Antisemitism, and Terrorism (HEAT) Map, where users can drill down on data by state, city and locality. Other experts have catalogued the domestic extremism threat’s rise and experts with a range of backgrounds have outlined how the election could spark new violence. In addition to ADL’s work, some organizations have cultivated other new resources to prepare for election security, ranging from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, to the Police Foundation.
It is often difficult for law enforcement or poll workers, among others, to identify hate symbols—sharing the ADL’s Hate Symbols Database with local law enforcement can help them do so in real time. There are myriad resources on the threats from experts, including ADL, which offers free training for local leaders to become better acquainted with threat groups ranging from “boogaloo” and the Proud Boys to QAnon and others.
All leaders need to tamp down the provocative rhetoric and fearmongering that incite extremists. Leaders must also clarify that they reject any call for extremist action around the election. And leaders should reassure the public that they are keeping communities safe by taking some basic steps to demonstrate that they both understand these potential threats and are taking actions to address them. A few steps that state and local leaders can implement relatively quickly include: sharing guidance with law enforcement on how to recognize threats, issuing public statements, preparing law enforcement for emergencies and giving them guidance on when they should act. These actions can serve to reduce public fervor, while also diminishing the likelihood of disruption at the polls or violence after the vote.
The Risks of Election-Motivated Violence
These and other actions can be taken immediately. If done thoughtfully, these steps can reassure the public that their state or locality is addressing these threats, and community members should feel safe to vote. If done recklessly, they could inadvertently suppress the vote. If no steps are taken, the risk of election-motivated violence could be higher. Some states are already taking these measures, and they should be lauded. ADL stands by to help those who have not yet put these measures into place that need assistance to do so. ADL anticipates that, overall, the right to vote will be secure and that any unrest that might follow the election will not rise to the level of “a civil war,” despite the calls for such by some extremists. However, the right to vote is so foundational to our core values that every precaution must be taken. The American public deserves a fair and safe electoral process, and with proper leadership, it is possible for states to deliver it.