Officials across the United States already charged with securing the upcoming presidential election are taking additional precautions, bracing for the possibility that Nov. 3 and the days that follow could be marred not just by potential cyberattacks but by violence.
The boldest and, perhaps, starkest warnings are not coming from federal authorities but from state officials, some of whom say foreign disinformation campaigns could fuel a range of problems, from minor disturbances to something much more severe.
“Election result delays and recounts could result in protests and attempts to occupy election offices,” officials with the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness warned in a threat assessment issued in late September.
“Incidents of civil unrest resulting in riots, violent acts, and fatalities will converge with election uncertainty, producing confrontations between protesters and counter-demonstrators challenging election outcomes,” it noted.
Other state and local election officials are not taking such warnings lightly, especially after the FBI this month disrupted a plot by anti-government militia extremists to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Michigan officials say they are reviewing the situation with an eye toward the election and plan to issue additional guidance in the coming days.
But the kidnapping plot, which according to the FBI also looked at Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam as a potential target, is not the only incident that has caused alarm among state election officials.
Some have also pointed to a protest in late September outside an early voting center in Fairfax County, Virginia – a suburb of Washington – that quickly went viral.
Video of the protest, posted to social media, shows a group of supporters of President Donald Trump approaching the polling location with signs and flags, chanting, “Four more years!”
Police reports on the incident indicate entrances to the polling site, a county government building, were never blocked, and officials later said there were no indication any laws were broken. But some voters told media outlets they did feel intimidated.
Preparing for possible election violence
Still, election officials across the country worry the next time might not play out as peacefully.
“That’s something that’s definitely of concern to us,” Michael Moore, the information security officer for Maricopa County, Arizona, said during an online forum on Sept. 23, just days after the incident.
Moore’s advice to other election officials — be prepared.
“Make sure that you’re reaching out to your law enforcement and say, on and around Election Day, what is our plan?” he said. “Do you have an emergency contact list? Do you have your police department, your sheriff, whoever, on speed dial ready to get them to respond to any kind of threat?”
Police in Fairfax County declined to comment on any specific measures they have taken in response to the protest, though a spokesman told VOA the department is “in daily, real-time communication with our partners at the Board of Elections, the federal government and Metropolitan Police Department in Washington on any potential events or threats.”
For its part, the Metropolitan Police Department is planning for increased patrols in areas around polling places on Election Day itself.
“MPD’s policy is to ensure that all citizens in the District of Columbia [Washington] are afforded the opportunity to vote on any given election day,” said MPD spokesperson Kristen Metzger, pointing to a policy dating back to 2003.
Only, just planning for security on Election Day itself might not be enough.
The updated threat assessment issued by New Jersey officials warns that the longer it takes for the Nov. 3 election to be decided, the greater the chances for something to go wrong.
In one possible scenario, which envisions the country having to wait months for certified election results, the assessment advises: “Several states [could] become a destination for various groups to converge and conduct violent protests,” resulting in “deadly confrontations and civil unrest occurring among protesters, requiring state and federal law enforcement to intervene.”
Still, organizations representing state officials say, as scary as such a scenario sounds, their members are determined not to be caught unprepared.
“At the state and local level, countless election scenarios are planned for,” a spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State told VOA, adding they have been helped by a series of so-called “table-top exercises.”
“These exercises provide an opportunity for the election community to come together to game plan for various scenarios and test and improve their response plans, the spokesperson said.
There are questions, though, as to whether state and local officials, or the federal government, have given enough thought to the prospects of a U.S. election marred by violence.
For the majority of the past four years, most of the focus for election security officials has been on the virtual threat – concerns that U.S. adversaries could try to hack into critical systems and concerns that foreign influence operations will skew the election even before Americans try to cast their votes.
And while top U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed confidence that the voting process will be secure, they have said little publicly about the potential for election-related violence, even under questioning from lawmakers.
“Hard to say,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in September when questioned about the danger.
“Certainly, there is an effort to sow upheaval and discord, and as we’ve seen around the country discord and upheaval can lead to dangerous, violent criminal activity,” he added, referring to the protests that have gripped cities across the country.
Asked to elaborate on Wray’s testimony, an FBI official told VOA, “Our preparations for 2020 take into account the current climate of the country.”
“We are working closely with our federal, state, and local partners so everyone involved with safe-guarding the election has the information and resources necessary to respond in a timely manner to any violations that may arise,” the official said, describing the preparations as “extensive.”
Another U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said while the physical security of elections is always a concern, this year there has been much more of a focus on possible violence, before, during and after Election Day.
In some cases, state officials say the FBI has been especially proactive, reaching out to them with concerns, as they brace for the possibility that political and social tensions could boil over.
“The FBI has asked for a meeting statewide, which I am partnering them with, in order to address potential issues at polling locations on Election Day or even during early voting,” Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, told reporters during a video call on Tuesday.
“We are partnering with the FBI in New Mexico as well to protect folks at our polling locations from intimidation,” added Democratic New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
“Intimidation and things like that are kind of coming up to the forefront this year,” said Toulouse Oliver, who serves as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “We work to make sure that the election code in its entirety is being followed and protected. And the FBI has been a proactive partner.”
Officials from Ohio and New Jersey said they too have been working with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on security concerns.
National Guard deployment
Only there is no one-size fits all response, plans for dealing with any potential violence vary not just from state to state, but from one jurisdiction to the next.
In some states, that may mean calling on the National Guard.
“Each state is different and has the advantage of tailoring its National Guard forces to their specific requirements to support elections,” National Guard Bureau spokesman, U.S. Army Master Sgt. W. Michael Houk told VOA via email.
In some states, like New Jersey, National Guard members have already been called upon to support local election officials with ballot processing, steps they took during primary elections in July.
But Houk said states can request the National Guard to “provide physical security for polling, and other supporting activities to protect the safety and welfare of citizens.”
And getting such help may be easier thanks to a National Guard Response Task Force, made available in mid-September, to provide states with military police units to help respond to the ongoing protests that have swept across the country.
If called upon, the task force can deploy up to 600 guardsmen from Arizona and Alabama to any potential hotspots, National Guard officials said.
Other security measures
Some experts, though, contend just bringing in more security personnel might not be enough.
“There should be a visible mix of high-tech, low-tech, and “no-tech” resources in and around polling places and protest venues,” says K. Campbell, former military intelligence officer who is now a principal at Blue Glacier Security and Intelligence, a private security firm.
“High-tech includes cameras and other sensors that can deter miscreants,” he said, adding high fences or barriers that slow down anyone looking to take part in violence.
Campbell said the more states can do now to understand what threats may be lurking, the better off they will be.
“Intelligence, such as legal surveillance and open source intelligence, will arguably be the most important security measure during and after the election,” he said.
And while taking these security precautions may be necessary, some state officials say the key to keeping the peace on Nov. 3 and in the days and weeks that follow, will be the need to communicate with the American public about the election results – likely to be delayed because of a record number of mail-in ballots, some of which might not even be sent in until Election Day itself.
“The trouble is, is when people aren’t keeping tabs of that and you don’t have people being open with the press, and therefore you lose the confidence,” West Virginia Secretary of State Andrew “Mac” Warner, said during a recent webinar. “That’s when the violence or whatever potential increases dramatically.”
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