Americans have plenty of concerns surrounding the Nov. 3 election — their votes being counted, foreign interference, catching coronavirus at the polls, postal service delays, lost ballots, court fights — the last thing people need is one more thing to worry about.
But President Donald Trump has been ordering his supporters to keep an eye on polling stations. He is using his rallies and email lists to recruit a massive team of “poll-watchers” with false claims of rampant corruption. During the first presidential debate he stoked further fears when he stated, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” in response to a question about whether he would denounce white supremacists.
“We’ve seen a lot of mobilization within the far right around the election — not just among the Proud Boys,” says Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She adds that these groups on the far right take Trump’s word that the election will be fraudulent — and leaders use it to recruit and mobilize. “So there’s a real possibility that you could get far-right groups going out to polling places and to ballot boxes and engaging in voter suppression or intimidation.”
So the question must be addressed: Might Trump’s clarion calls to protect his interests result in vigilantes with guns showing up at polls on Election Day to intimidate voters?
That was on the minds of leaders from two gun-violence prevention advocacy groups that produced a report released in late September titled “Guns Down At The Polls: How States Can and Should Limit Firearms at Polling Places.” It looked into related laws and their enforcement in five swing states, including Wisconsin, where there are no laws banning guns at the polls. (The other states included were Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.)
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence joined with Guns Down America to highlight how states like Wisconsin — where Republican legislators gaveled in and out of a special session on gun safety in seconds with no action — can use current law to curtail potential voter intimidation. The goal, say the leaders of the two groups, is not to scare people, but to help keep Election Day safe.
“The president has chosen to call on his supporters to create armies and to patrol polling places,” says Guns Down America executive director Igor Volsky. “He’s really using a bullhorn in order to create chaos and anxiety, and we see it as our role to ensure that the individuals who have the power to prevent voter intimidation — and these are election officials on the state level — have all of the resources, knowledge and information they possibly can to make sure that they’re prepared for anything that could happen.”
Volsky says that shortly after the debate, Trump doubled down on what he’d said on stage. “He and his campaign followed up by sending another email asking people to join Trump’s army to patrol the polling place.”
The weeks before Nov. 3 need to be used, he says, to ensure poll workers have clear, specific guidance on how to respond to any armed intimidation. “I think what’s fairly clear is that Donald Trump’s strategy is to create chaos, create violence in order to sow doubt in our democracy and in our election,” says Volsky, “which is of course completely at odds with his claim that he wants to see law and order.”
Providing that education for poll workers and election officials and highlighting state law can combat misinformation from the White House, adds Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“We want to make sure — and I think this is the most important part — that election officials know what their rights and responsibilities are, have coordinated response plans so that voting will be safe,” says Horwitz. “And if they do that, we do believe that this will be a safe and secure election.”
The issue of guns at the polls is already on the radar of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which has a team working with law enforcement to develop training materials for clerks, poll workers and others. It may be released in written materials or webinars, and it will also likely be posted for the public on the website.
“Commission staff is working with law enforcement and the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office to clarify and develop guidance on Wisconsin’s laws regarding firearms in polling places,” says Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney. “It’s my guess that we should have something in the next couple of weeks.”
Only six states — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas — have straightforward laws prohibiting guns in polling locations.
Strict Wisconsin preemption laws prevent local governments from banning firearms at polling places unless state law changes. The report highlights that while Wisconsin does not have such a ban, a number of current laws can serve to protect voters.
“If you harass somebody and attempt to prevent them from voting, or influence their vote, that’s a crime in Wisconsin,” Horwitz says. “A little preparedness will go a long way here.”
The report describes a path for Wisconsin to keep polls safe and orderly: “Though Wisconsin does not have many voter intimidation laws, the one it does is comprehensive in scope. It is illegal in Wisconsin for a person to ‘personally or through an agent make use of or threaten to make use of force, violence, or restraint in order to induce or compel any person to vote or refrain from voting at an election.’ In addition to other fact-specific circumstances, the display of a firearm at a polling place could be considered a threat to induce or compel a person to vote or refrain from voting.”
Other laws that the report cites for potential use in controlling guns at polls include Wisconsin criminal statutes against threats to injure, disorderly conduct or unlawful assembly that could cause injury or damage unless dispersed.
Horwitz has been studying guns, insurrection and politics for three decades and 11 years ago he wrote a book titled, “Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea.”
“I warned the country that allowing guns to seep into the political process would be disastrous for democracy,” he says, noting that at the time most people didn’t believe him. He updated his ideas in a May column published in the New York Daily News, headlined “President Trump’s private insurrection army.”
In the column he writes that the National Rifle Association (NRA) and far-right groups have moved well beyond the idea of people using guns to protect their homes and family. “They told Americans: You don’t just need a gun for home protection; it is your duty to stockpile weapons to take action against a tyrannical American government.” Gun owners are listening, as has been evident during protests against stay-at-home and mask orders where armed militia have descended on capitol grounds carrying assault rifles, bullying healthcare workers or “protecting” businesses from protesters marching against racism under the Black Lives Matter banner.
The report states that “armed counter protestors, some of whom identify with militia movements, have organized in opposition to anti-racism rallies in at least 33 states across the country over the past several months.”
Gun sales are at a record high in 2020 and it is hard to discern which factors are driving those sales. The U.S. Concealed Carry Association (USCCA), headquartered in West Bend, Wis. put out a statement on Oct. 7 noting that September is the ninth consecutive month of record firearm-related background checks, with more than 2,892,000 new checks, according to FBI records. “Throughout the pandemic, ongoing civil unrest across the nation, and a pending presidential election, it’s clear that Americans are engaging in their Second Amendment rights unlike ever before,” said Tim Schmidt, president and founder of the USCCA.
Trump’s heightened rhetoric coincides with surging gun sales and his vigilante/militia supporters openly carry their weapons to protests and other public locations. In Kenosha, they exchanged friendly banter with the police, who gave them water bottles and thanked them for being present. Hours later, one of them was charged with killing two protesters and wounding a third.
Listening to the presidential debate, Horowitz heard Trump issue a direct command. “Make no mistake about it, that was a signal to his private army to be ready. And the idea that a president has a private militia, and is directing and deploying them, should chill Americans of every stripe.”
Wisconsin vs the White House
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) views Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition if he loses the election as a way to suppress the vote.
“I just have to say that the overt and implicit calls to violence, frankly, are downright scary,” says Baldwin, regarding Trump’s performance at the debate. “And it’s just yet another instance of Trump trying to suppress votes, intimidate and draw a doubt as to whether there will be a peaceful transfer of power. And it is un-American.”
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell adds that the election scare tactics are not coming from either Democrats or Republicans on the state level. Both state parties have for some time sent poll watchers to monitor elections and he sees the roles they both play as following rules and advice from their respective party.
“In the past, observers haven’t been a real problem,” says McDonell. “At worst they may be a little annoying, but they follow instructions.” During the 2016 recount he had Trump supporters show up who seemed angry, and he simply pointed them to the Republican Party’s observer to check in.
McDonell says municipal and county clerks share information and best practices. One idea he is strongly against would be having uniformed officers at a polling station, as that, too, could intimidate voters.
“Our election is very secure, especially in Wisconsin,” McDonell stresses, noting that in the 2016 recount state vote totals barely changed. “At this level there is a great deal of belief in our system and I know that’s true of state Republicans and state Democrats. It’s just coming, really, from the White House.”
Report authors Volsky and Horwitz agree that what’s important is making sure systems are in place at the local level and there is a coordinated response so no voters will be scared away.
“What the report is meant for is to alert elected election officials to make plans now,” says Horwitz. “And if they do that and they coordinate with law enforcement and they coordinate with their state officials, should there be a need, I think you’ll have a very smooth Election Day. And if there are any problems, they’ll know how to deal with them. And that’s, that’s the point of this report — not to scare people. The point of the report is to be ready so that we have a safe and secure election.”