For months, political analysts, scholars, and the media have forewarned the possibility of a contested election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In the context of a deep economic and political crisis, increasing polarization, and coronavirus cases on the rise, Trump is facing an uphill battle for re-election; even with the lack of enthusiasm from below for Biden’s candidacy, most polls are predicting a Biden-Harris victory. It’s unclear how Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis and the subsequent drop in the stock market will affect his campaign plans and re-election chances. But the range of possible scenarios is still wide open.
In the middle of a pandemic that has drastically increased the number of mail-in ballots being counted this year, likely extending the counting period for weeks beyond Election Day, the Trump administration is using every maneuver at its disposal to pre-emptively cast doubt on the results of the election and tip the scales in the president’s favor. From Trump’s campaign against mail-in voting and his attacks on the U.S. Postal Service to the Republicans’ tireless efforts to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before Election Day, the Trump administration is using all the undemocratic mechanisms of the state to ensure Trump’s victory one way or the other.
Trump himself is fanning these flames with sometimes-veiled, sometimes-explicit threats to contest the election if it doesn’t go his way — in tweets, in rally speeches, and most recently during the first presidential debate. After being asked by moderator Chris Wallace about “election integrity” and whether he would encourage his supporters to “stay calm during this extended [counting] period, not to engage in any civil unrest,” Trump responded: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.”
Only minutes after telling the white supremacist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Trump called on his reactionary, right-wing base to guard polling stations, giving them what amounts to a mandate to interfere with polling procedures and intimidate voters. This is one more attempt by the Trump administration to stir up Trump’s base and pave the way for him to contest the results if he loses. But this recent direct call to action goes beyond even the vast legal mechanisms at Trump’s disposal to manipulate the election results, such as increasing voter roll purges and gerrymandering that disenfranchise millions of people, particularly working class people of color.
Called to Action
In short, while campaigns can deploy trained and registered poll-watchers to oversee voting operations, legislation at both the state and federal level prohibits members of the public and campaign officials from going to polling stations to watch, intimidate, or otherwise coerce voters. Trump’s calls for his base to undertake their own form of “ballot security” defies such rules. Of course, these laws do not touch the vast legal mechanisms that enable the U.S. government to suppress votes — such as the Electoral College, the disenfranchisement of incarcerated and undocumented people, or voter ID laws — but they are also not particularly effective, by design, at staving off outright intimidation either. In this year’s election, Trump’s base has already begun going to the polls to harass voters.
In late September, Trump supporters stationed themselves outside a polling location in northern Virginia to shout at people as they entered the polling station. Now that Trump has openly called for his supporters to mobilize to the polls to enforce his “law and order” on the elections, it is not unlikely that we will see more of these types of activities to dissuade people from voting as polling stations continue to open around the country.
For its part, the Trump campaign seems to be doing everything in its power to encourage this behavior. In a recent ad for the campaign, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., warns voters of the “radical left’s” plans to steal the election by adding millions of fraudulent votes by mail after in-person voting closes. He implores his father’s supporters: “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join [the] army for Trump’s election security operation.” He then tells them to volunteer online at “defendyourballot.com,” which has recently been changed to “armyfortrump.com.”
This type of warlike, red-baiting rhetoric is a clear signal to the racist, right-wing sector of Trump’s base to mobilize on the president’s behalf on Election Day — and if the past few months of increased right-wing violence are any indication, it’s not out of the question that they will heed the call in certain cities where the right-wing is organized and willing to mobilize — such as in Portland or Philadelphia. If they do so, it will be with the blessing of the police and local governments who will intervene to protect these vigilantes of capital.
Of course, this is not the first time that the Trump campaign has made claims about voter fraud to usher his base to the polls in his defense. In 2016, Trump warned that the election would be rigged against him, and his supporters in right-wing terrorist organizations like the KKK threatened to patrol the polls. But the difference is that now, Trump is defending his shaky hold on power; his right-wing base is only more emboldened after four years of a Trump presidency and, more recently, an escalation of white vigilantism in the name of “law and order” against the anti-racist uprising.
Voter Intimidation is Ingrained in the Electoral Process
The United States has an even longer history of voter intimidation in elections, especially intimidation perpetrated by white supremacist groups against people of color. Beginning directly after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other groups have intervened for decades with violence and other scare tactics to prevent Black and Brown people from voting. Federal decrees outlawing such behavior only forced white supremacists to be slightly more clandestine in their methods so as not to be caught blatantly breaking the law. But given the ties between the police and white supremacist groups, it’s not surprising that much of this terrorizing of Black and Brown communities went (and continues to be) unchecked.
It’s not just the police, though: the efforts of these sorts of extralegal groups reinforce the systemic mechanisms by which the capitalist state ensures the domination and exploitation of working people and marginalized communities. During the 1981 gubernatorial race in New Jersey, the Republican party organized militias of armed men to serve as “ballot security” patrols. Calling themselves the “National Ballot Security Task Force,” about 200 people around the state harassed Black and Latinx communities and prevented them from voting — in some cases, physically barring and chasing people away from the polls. As a result of these efforts, the Republican candidate narrowly won the election. In response, a court instituted a “consent decree,” which prevented the Republican Party from using voter-purging and voter-intimidation techniques and required a federal judge to approve any ballot security measures in advance of the election.
However, Democrats allowed this decree to expire in 2018, which means that in this year’s elections, the Republican Party can use its vast resources to hire poll security without prior approval and otherwise aid the Trump campaign in enlisting people to patrol polling stations to “oversee” the voting process. The Republican Party has already spent large sums of money to orchestrate the largest legal effort in the party’s history to make sure the election goes to Trump in November. The GOP and the Trump campaign have organized thousands of poll-watchers, including members of his extreme right-wing base. And without the consent decree, the qualifications for these poll-watching positions are much less strict and will enable Trump’s base to legally “guard” voting locations. Such efforts legitimize Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the election and further encourage his base to act on his behalf against the threat they see in the Democratic Party and “radicalized left.”
Only the Working Class Can Defend Against Right-Wing Attacks
Trump’s remarks represent a threat to the democratic rights of working people across the country and the potential for violent clashes on Election Day if bands of organized Trump supporters take it upon themselves to “guard” the polls clad in kevlar and armed with AK-47s. Though the far-right is not emboldened enough to mobilize large numbers to the polls across the country, Trump is sending them a clear message to protect his interests at the polls. As the terrain for his re-election becomes rockier, he is considering all the means at his disposal to energize his base and safeguard his reelection.
If Trump’s right-wing supporters go out on Election Day — on their own or as official “poll-watchers” — then workers’ organizations and the left must prepare ourselves to respond. We know that bourgeois elections will never be “fair” for working people who are forced to choose between two racist, sexist ruling class candidates in a electoral system that disenfranchises millions of working people. But we must fight tooth and nail against Trump’s threats to use his base to intimidate voters. Such an infringement on the right to vote — with the help of emboldened right-wing groups — would pave the way for further attacks against the basic rights of the working class and oppressed groups. Moreover, if right-wing sectors, like those who shot anti-racist protesters or drove their cars into crowds of demonstrators, come out to guard the polls, this could mean violence against working people, particularly Black and Brown people.
For their part, the Democrats have already proven that they won’t stop Trump from organizing his own ballot security force. They may challenge Trump through bourgeois legal means to tip the elections in their favor, but they won’t stop right-wing Trump supporters from intimidating and harassing voters at polling stations. Democratic Party politicians and state law enforcement in Michigan didn’t even stop armed white protesters from storming the capitol in outrage over lockdown measures in April. The Democrats won’t mobilize to protect the rights of millions of working people.
Why? Because while Trump might be more blatant about encouraging extrajudicial means to suppress votes, the Democrats exist to uphold the same undemocratic institutions — like the Senate and the Supreme Court — that facilitate the exploitation of working people and other oppressed groups, and ensure that they have no say in how society runs. If the Democrats choose to challenge Trump, it will be at the legal level, not against right-wing mobilizations at the polls. And if Trump is able to mobilize sectors of his base to intimidate people at the polls — or if he’s able to contest the election, or confirm a Supreme Court justice before Election Day, or if he wins the election for the second time because of the Electoral College, or by any other “legal” maneuvers, it will be a clear sign of the bankruptcy of the U.S.’s highest institutions that were created and are defended by both parties. These institutions and the two bourgeois parties that uphold them are not vehicles for democracy for working class and oppressed people.
Instead, we must organize ourselves to defend against assaults on our democratic rights, whether they come from right-wing militias or from the halls of Congress. In our workplaces and in the streets, in safety committees and in protests, the working class — from organized labor to the anti-racist movement — must unite against right-wing attacks and Trump’s attempts to suppress democratic rights. The far-right might have become more solidified over the last four years, but as protest after protest has shown, we far outnumber them. While millions of people flocked to the streets as part of the uprising against police terror, only 200 white supremacists managed to show up in Portland for a pro-Trump rally that was expected to attract thousands. Mobilizing together, we can protect ourselves and fight back against both their maneuvers and the undemocratic, authoritarian measures of the capitalist state.