The normalization and spread of armed intimidation at polling places poses a direct threat to safe and fair elections in this country, and represents a growing risk for our national ideals. It is an issue that should concern any Civil Society funder interested in safeguarding democratic principles and protecting the rule of law.
We are currently living through an uptick of armed political extremism. From statehouse protests against Covid-19 restrictions in the spring of 2020 to armed intimidators participating in “Stop the Steal” rallies in the aftermath of the 2020 elections, firearms have become omnipresent in American political discourse, posing a significant threat to American freedoms. The presence of firearms in public spaces has even had a chilling effect on Americans exercising their First Amendment right to assemble, as we saw in the racial justice protests inspired by the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Simply put, America’s political system is under threat as national leaders propagate lies about our election process and encourage their supporters to take up arms, creating the perfect climate for political violence.
Though capturing concrete data may at times prove elusive, in 2016, Guns Down America found at least 85 reports of armed intimidation at polling places from 28 states and received similar reports during the 2018 election. Researchers have documented at least 190 incidents of gun carrying at public demonstrations during the summer of 2020, and from the beginning of January 2020 through November of 2021, new data shows a total of at least 610 armed demonstrations nationwide. Such events were six and a half times more likely to be violent.
The January 6th Insurrection was also heavily armed. A review of the police reports found that police seized “at least 3,071 rounds of ammunition during the course of these arrests — enough ammunition to shoot every member of the House and Senate five times” and “hundreds of rounds of additional ammo were found during the subsequent arrests of other individuals who participated.” The threat has only increased since then.
A June 2021 article from Reuters described the threats election workers face every day:
“Trump’s baseless voter-fraud accusations have had dark consequences for U.S. election leaders and workers, especially in contested states such as Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan. Some have faced protests at their homes or been followed in their cars. Many have received death threats.”
As The New York Times reported in February 2022, members of Congress are also under constant threat:
“Overall, threats against members of Congress reached a record high of 9,600 last year, according to data provided by the Capitol Police, double the previous year’s total. In the first three months of 2021 alone, the Capitol Police fielded more than 4,100 threats against lawmakers in the House and Senate, straining the law enforcement personnel tasked with investigating them.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security recently warned that this conspiracy continues to fuel calls for violence on social media:
“DHS has seen an increasing but modest level of individuals calling for violence in response to the unsubstantiated claims of fraud related to the 2020 election fraud and the alleged ‘reinstatement’ of former President Trump.”
Researchers from the University of Chicago have found that support for armed political violence is only growing, with those who are most likely to commit violence “demographically closer to an average American than an average right-wing extremist and indicating that far right support for political violence is moving into the mainstream.” The research indicates that approximately 21 million Americans believe that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency and that “the 2020 election was stolen, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.”
“Today’s 21 million adamant supporters of insurrection also have the dangerous potential for violent mobilization. Our survey also asked pointed questions about membership and support for militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers, or extremist groups, such as the Proud boys, to which approximately, one million of the 21 million insurrectionists are themselves or personally know a member of a militia or extremist group. Six million showed support for militias and extremist groups. At least seven million of this number own a gun, and three million have prior US military service.”
Guns and armed intimidation have no place in the American electoral process. Democracy organizations are doing important work combating voter suppression laws and efforts to undermine the integrity of the election process. But the threat posed by firearms and the proliferation of firearms by extremists is often left out of their analysis.