Law enforcement preps for potential election-related unrest
WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal and state law enforcement officials have begun expanded preparations for the possibility of widespread rioting in election day. This is in response to extremely high voter tensions and security concerns, partly sparked by President Donald Trump.
The FBI and local officials in several states have conducted exercises, gone through worst-case scenarios, established command centers to improve the coordination of reports of voter violence and intimidation, and issued public warnings of crimes that render the sanctity of November 3rd threaten voting will not be tolerated.
Efforts are broader and more public than in years past as fears about the potential for violent clashes in cities across the U.S. mount. Law enforcement officers say that instead of responding to any particular threat or information, they prepare for a variety of different scenarios that could play out.
Tensions are particularly high in view of the increasing political polarization and the months of mass demonstrations against racist injustices, in which violence has taken place on the left and right. Gun sales are way up. Six men were arrested after federal officials announced they would kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., From her vacation home. Experts are concerned that right-wing extremists are being encouraged by Trump's recent refusal to unequivocally denounce the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group, and instead tell them to "stand by and stand by".
Trump spent months proposing without evidence that the election could be rigged. His call to supporters to “go to the polls and watch very closely” has made election officials concerned that unofficial or self-appointed “observers” could cause chaos and conflict at polling stations.
An FBI official said the agency was taking the country's current climate into account in its preparations to keep the elections safe and was working with other agencies to protect the electoral system. The official would not publicly discuss the plans and would speak to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
In addition, this election will be the first in nearly 40 years that the Republican National Committee has not been excluded from coordinated poll-monitoring activities. Democrats fear this could open the door to voter intimidation, which is why the courts have largely banned Republicans from monitoring elections since the early 1980s.
So far, extremism experts have not seen an open discussion online about plans to incite violence or interfere with voting.
Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University, a computer scientist who studies online extremism, said the right-wing extremists who follow her on social media seem to be preparing for problems - a "prepper mindset" - without giving details .
"They're waiting for something to pop out," she said. "It's like a simmering feeling."
She said the mindset is very important, especially among Boogaloo supporters, a loose, anti-government, pro-gun extremist online network. Boogaloo supporters have appeared at protests against COVID-19 lockdown orders and protests against racial injustice, the carrying of guns and the wearing of tactical gear.
On one of the internet forums that Squire follows, a boogaloo fan recently discussed plans to supply themselves with water, food, gasoline and generators in the event that the infrastructure fails and the utility lines are interrupted.
Squire also said that the Proud Boys, a group known for encouraging street rallies at rallies in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, seem encouraged by Trump's comments, as are the less organized and strict numbers posting on Facebook.
The fatal shots of a heavily armed teenager during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August fueled pro-vigilante attitudes among mainstream conservatives, Squire said.
And by mid-2020, there were just over 19 million FBI background checks, more than in all of 2012 and any previous year. July reached an all-time high. Background checks are the key barometer of gun sales, but the FBI's monthly numbers also include checks for permits some states require to carry a firearm. Each background check could also be for sales of more than one weapon.
The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is responsible for enforcing federal voting laws and engages US law firms to appoint special election coordinators to handle voting cases. The Federal Government has been sending public prosecutors and federal observers to polling stations for decades to ensure compliance with federal law.
Local offices from New Mexico to Florida have prepared, performed table exercises, and addressed potential security threats.
But their jobs are particularly strained this year, in part because of concerns about politicization. Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly suggested without evidence that it may be a widespread mail-in election fraud, although there is little to support it.
This year, officials from a number of federal law enforcement agencies will coordinate on election day at the FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center, a global command center at FBI headquarters.
Justice Department prosecutors from various parts of the agency, including the civil rights and national security departments, will be on hand to monitor incidents and coordinate a federal response in the event of violence and threats to electoral infrastructure or cyberattacks, as well as high-speed attacks. Profile incidents at polling stations, said the people who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security have sent additional personnel to cities where violence has occurred during the protests. The National Guard has deployed military police units in Arizona and Alabama as rapid reaction forces so they can respond quickly to possible disturbances.
However, the first response on election day will be local law enforcement.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has set up a hotline that goes directly to assistant district attorneys who dispatch detectives to investigate reports of voter suppression or intimidation. He said this week his office will not allow armed groups to enter the city's polling stations as concerns grow over voter intimidation by vigilante groups trying to "protect the elections". Such groups caused violence during demonstrations.
However, Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said he had not seen any specific campaigns for groups intending to target polling stations.
"Much of the chatter you see is going to be an exaggeration, and one of the things we don't want to do is increase the exaggeration," he said.
Segal said white supremacists often turn to violence "when they feel their culture is being taken away", while militias "are more likely to get nervous when they think their weapons are being taken". Now he sees a possible threat from a loose coalition of Guards and other armed extremists who "believe their election will be taken away".
Kunzleman reported from College Park in Maryland. Associate press writers Claudia Lauer from Philadelphia and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
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