Far Right Groups Loom As A Threat On Election Day — And Beyond
Armed men at polling places. Post-election violence. These are not scenes typically associated with American democracy. But that’s exactly what extremism experts are warning could happen on and after Nov. 3. And the anti-government groups these experts are concerned about are likely to be a force long after the election, regardless of outcome.
One of those movements is the Three Percent, a loose affiliation of militias across the country. On a recent weekend, one of the most prominent of these groups, the Washington Three Percent, organized an anti-lockdown protest on Whidbey Island, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle.
The Freedom to Worship Protest, as it was called, was equal parts tent revival, patriotic rally, and political event. There was a guy in a Revolutionary War costume, contemporary Christian music, and even booths handing out political campaign flyers and stickers for political candidates in Washington.
About 150 people gathered under a white tent in a grassy lot to hear speakers like Matt Marshall, leader of Washington Three Percent.
“I am frequently discounted as a far-right extremist,” he told the crowd. “I also get small-town redneck, leader of a militia and various other things that are used to discredit me and my qualifications and the Three Percent.”
Marshall is a combat veteran and physician’s assistant who prefers suits to camo. He’s been trying to clean up the image of groups like his.
On this day he’s wearing a tie adorned with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. A pistol in a leather holster pokes out from underneath his blazer. Burned into the holster is a Thomas Jefferson quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
This part of the country has been a breeding ground for militia groups, which have flourished in states like Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana.
While the philosophies of these armed groups vary, they all say they are there to defend their communities.
Marshall rejects the term “militia” fashioning his group as more of a community organization, albeit one that does weapons training.
“Our role is to support, unite, prepare and defend our community,” he said.
Marshall urges everyone to accept the results of the presidential election. But fellow speaker Joey Gibson won’t commit to followers not showing up armed to polls on Election Day.
“I would say everyone should watch the polls closely, right or left,” he said.
Gibson leads the far-right group Patriot Prayer, whose members have often brawled with left-wing activists in Portland. One of his followers was shot to death during a protest there in August. And he says he’s not sure what his group will do after the election.
“If it's obvious that Trump had won and they're trying to delay, they're trying to stop people, silence people from saying that he had won, then we're definitely going to make a lot of noise in terms of declaring that he had won,” Gibson said.
That gets to a lot of experts’ concerns: the potential for followers of these groups and ideologies to show up to the polls armed, which could intimidate voters.
“I'm worried that at least in some cases, those situations could easily escalate into violence,” said Amy Cooter, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies militias.
She said armed freelance poll-watchers could have an especially chilling effect in places with a history of suppressing voting by people of color.
And that potential may be heightened by President Donald Trump continually undermining the election’s integrity. In a recent debate Trump said, “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what needs to happen.”
He also called on the xenophobic Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” in lieu of disavowing them, which many took as tacit support from the White House.
Since then, some far-right leaders have explicitly called for members to show up armed to polling places as unsanctioned observers. That includes Stewart Rhodes, leader of the national militia movement Oath Keepers. One gun rights activist in the key battleground of Erie, Pennsylvania, has threatened to bring armed supporters to polling places.
It’s rhetoric like this that has spurred some state attorneys general to promise a crackdown on any effort to scare voters from the polls.
“To the extent you violate the law relative to using your firearm to intimidate or cause or to unduly influence someone,” said Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, “that's going to be considered voter intimidation.”
But with the murky intersection of the First and Second Amendments, finding that line may be tricky.
“The mere presence of a firearm at a public polling location in and of itself won't rise to that level right at the end of the day,” Ford said. “Again, these constitutional rights are just as important as the other, and they can operate concurrently.”
This is, of course, all on the heels of an alleged plot by militia members to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer.
Many people involved in the Patriot Movement have already been showing up to anti-racism protests. And that has occasionally spilled into confrontations, even killings on both sides. Armed groups have generally been allowed to assemble in public without interference from local or state law enforcement, even as some Black Lives Matter protesters have faced tear gas and arrests.
But law enforcements can crack down on these groups. At least, they can according to a law professor who is campaigning for states to enforce anti-militia laws.
“There is no authority under federal or state law for private groups of individuals to arm themselves, organize together and project authority to direct others,” said former federal prosecutor Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy at Georgetown Law.
McCord points out that every state bars private militias from acting like the military and that the Supreme Court has upheld this.
“I think law enforcement, by and large, has labored under the same misunderstanding of the Second Amendment as so many people across the country,” she said. “Just believing, because the mythology about the Second Amendment is so wide and so pervasive, believing that they have a constitutional right to do this.”
So McCord has sent letters to officials in a number of cities where armed groups have showed up on the streets, urging them to enforce laws on the books. She says she’s got a mixed response so far, but is hopeful that even the threat of legal action may give armed activists pause.
She’s also published a guide for voters on how to protect their rights at polling places. And that’s one thing McCord and other experts stress: Despite the concerns, people should not be deterred from voting.
“The best antidote to any type of intimidation is to come out in massive numbers,” she said. “And we are already seeing that in early voting.”
But the concerns golong past Nov. 3. Former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official Daryl Johnson thinks far-right groups could cause unrest for a while, especially with finalized election results potentially taking weeks.
Johnson spent 25 years monitoring domestic extremism for the federal government and penned a report in 2009 warning of the rising threat of far-right groups.
“We're in a period of heightened risk right now when it comes to political violence, given the rise of these groups, the recruitment and radicalization that's been ongoing for the past 11 years at least,” he said.
Despite Johnson’s report, the federal government was almost solely focused on foregn terrorism threats. Johnson says that’s allowed a decade of growth for anti-government groups with little law enforcement scrutiny.
More than that, the Washington rally is a good example of how these groups have become part of mainstream politics in many places. The Republican candidate for Washington governor, Loren Culp, set up a booth there, and a GOP congressional candidate was a featured speaker.
Patriot Movement leaders, like Marshall, have even been running for office, often with the full backing of the Republican Party.
Johnson says these groups aren’t going away any time soon.
“Given this current administration and their stance and their flirtation with these groups and, you know, kind of given them a green light to continue to operate based on their actions and words, I think it doesn't matter whether a Republican or Democrats in power because we're in for more of the same for the foreseeable future,” he said.
And Marshall, who called on his followers to accept election results, wouldn’t rule out a role in quelling what he sees as inevitable post-election violence.
“Our job is not to take up a policing role, but we do have a constitutional right to defend ourselves and our families,” he said. “So we'll be taking a local role, and if it then spills into the suburbs, then spills into members and families and friends communities, we will defend them, but we are not going to go out there and try to do any policing.”
That’s the kind of scenario many fear. Far from an endpoint, the election might just be the latest chapter in a new era of far-right mobilization.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.