US Presidential Election 2020
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Two men who claim to be part of the Oath Keepers, which rejects militia, white supremacist and racist labels. Photo: EPA

US election 2020: what if armed, far-right groups go to polls as Americans vote?

  • With political tensions running high, protesters from a variety of groups could clash at polling places and protest sites
  • The Department of Homeland Security warned that anti-government groups could carry out attacks

They go by names like Oath Keepers, Wolverine Watchmen and the Three Percenters. They chat on Gab, Discord, 4chan and other social media. Heavily armed and loyal to US President Donald Trump, many vow to descend on polling places November 3 in a far-right show of unity.

Armed, far-right groups have long echoed at the fringes of American politics, drawing white nationalists and other extremists to their ranks. But over the last four years – when conservative causes have collided with social justice movements – their voices have grown louder, their actions more brazen. The alleged plot last week by extremists to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was a stunning indication of the potential for domestic terrorism.

The groups are now turning their attention to battleground states in the most consequential election in generations. Far-right organisations have rallied around Trump, positioning themselves as a counterforce to movements like the antifascist antifa and Black Lives Matter, whom they blame for nationwide protests that have stirred unrest in recent months. Most Black Lives Matter protesters have been non-violent.

A Black Lives Matter activist confronts members the Oath Keepers in Louisville, Kentucky. File photo: Reuters

The Oath Keepers claim thousands of members, including those who served in the military and law enforcement. Some have signed up as poll watchers, while others plan to monitor the election armed and “undercover”, drawing their weapons if needed, said founder Stewart Rhodes, a former US Army paratrooper and Yale law school graduate: “We’ll be out on Election Day to protect people who are voting.”

These Americans are ‘standing by’ for possible US election violence

With political tensions running high across the country, protesters from a variety of groups could clash at polling places and protest sites. That happened Saturday in Denver when a man was shot and killed in a skirmish between far-left and far-right activists.

“The chances are really high that we’re going to see militia members, armed groups or Trump supporters who are armed at the polls,” said Cassie Miller, a senior researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Not only are these people willing to participate in voter intimidation, but they’re hoping to create this chaotic moment. There’s an unwillingness to accept anything but a Trump victory.”

The groups fall under the far-right banner but they’re not uniform in their methods and beliefs. Most express support for law enforcement, but have vigilante tendencies. Some call themselves law-abiding militias. Others, like the Oath Keepers, reject militia, white supremacist and racist labels. Those like the Proud Boys, which has been designated a hate group, and the Boogaloo movement, another far-right anti-government group, are prone to violence and see the election as an opportunity.

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

Trump’s rhetoric over the last four years has been regarded by far-right organisations as implicit endorsement. In 2017, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the “Unite the Right” rally attacked peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a protester, the president did not immediately condemn them. Last month, during his debate with Joe Biden, Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” before saying the next day that he was not aware of the group.

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Many armed groups have been banned from mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook. But armed groups’ online chatter about the election has not been muffled: they rely instead on private Telegram channels, member-only forums and the Zello walkie-talkie app.

A post to a QAnon-affiliated Telegram group with 5,200 subscribers this month warned of “heavily armed MAGA patriots” standing ready for the election, according to SITE Intelligence Group.

“I want nothing more than to stand down and live in peace, but if it goes bad, God forgive me for what I do when they force my hand,” an Oath Keeper wrote while discussing the election on a members-only forum this month.

Michigan militia members had rallied at – and inside – the state Capitol this year to oppose the state’s Covid-19 restrictions. File photo: Reuter

In another online forum of Three Percenters – an armed group that draws its name from the supposed 3 per cent of colonists who fought the American Revolution – a Vermont member warned: “November is almost here, prepare for anything! Reach out to your neighbouring states and work on those relationships to increase your intel as well as regional strength”.

People showing up armed at protests have led to several deaths this year. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old vigilante now celebrated by some right-wing groups, was charged in August with homicide in connection with the fatal shooting of two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests against a police shooting of a black man. Last month, a supporter of the right-wing Patriot Prayer was fatally shot in Portland, Oregon, by an antifa-affiliated protester later killed by federal agents attempting to arrest him.

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Michigan militia members had rallied at – and inside – the state Capitol this year to oppose the state’s Covid-19 restrictions. But concern over violence increased last week after state and federal authorities there charged 13 men with plotting to kidnap the Democratic governor and put her on trial for “uncontrolled power”. In recent weeks, the men had trained and dubbed themselves the Wolverine Watchmen.

The Department of Homeland Security warned last week that anti-government groups could carry out attacks over a perceived “infringement of liberties and government overreach” with polling sites “likely flash points for potential violence”.

A report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence predicted: “It is likely that significant numbers of people will bring guns to polling places under the guise of preventing election fraud”.

Georgetown Law School created an online tool to check laws concerning guns at polling places.

Twenty-five states, including California, have statutes that criminalise certain paramilitary activity, according to a Georgetown Law report.

Black Lives Matter protesters in swing states also plan to go to the polls to protect voters from being intimidated by right-wing groups: “This could be the biggest voter turnout in history, a lot of them people of colour,” said KeJuan Goldsmith, 19, a black activist college student who led a protest against police brutality in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Saturday. “If we need to be there for them to be protected, so they can cast their vote without fear, that’s what we have to do.”

Man charged in plot to kidnap Michigan governor was previously pardoned

Rhodes, 55, said the Oath Keepers militia plans to proactively monitor polling places as it did during the last presidential election, reporting problems to police. He said it’s most concerned with swing states such as Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin and has intelligence analysts looking at other states where the vote’s expected to be close.

Rhodes, a former criminal defence lawyer, tells members of his group to obey the law and not to menace voters. His group has provided volunteer security at recent Trump rallies, where he claimed supporters were attacked by armed counterprotesters.

Some experts predict armed groups would appear in cities where Trump has alleged voter fraud, such as Philadelphia. Others said they’re more likely where they have the most members: the West Coast, particularly the Pacific northwest. Still others suggest they will head to anti-lockdown and police protest hotspots: Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, Texas and Washington.

He said armed groups “will refer to it as ‘voter integrity’ or ‘poll watching’ but the act of showing up armed is certainly a deterrent to folks showing up to vote,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Seattle-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fears over Right-wing Threats on voting dayhat if armed, far-right groups go to the polls? Some plan to