President Trump has called on his supporters to “go into the polls” on Election Day and “watch very carefully,” implicitly urging them to intimidate Democratic voters in an effort to suppress opposition turnout.
But across the country, skilled organizers, academics, grass-roots groups, nonpartisan national organizations, and local community coalitions are preparing for the possibility of election and post-election interference and violence. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers are already signed up to take action to protect American democracy.
The Over Zero project and many other organizations are helping people build local coalitions to keep voting safe — in part by working to dismantle the anger and division that led to, and was inflamed by, Trump. Picture local public officials from opposing parties; faith coalitions; gardening clubs and hunting lodges; business associations and unions; civic action and civil rights groups — all signing pledges to respect and protect the vote. They’re informing their members about the latest voting rules and locations. And they’re reinforcing the message that they will peacefully support everyone’s right to vote. Behind the scenes, those leaders are building phone trees and relationships so they can join forces if there’s trouble.
National groups representing wide-ranging constituencies are likewise marshaling local volunteers toward that goal. For instance, the Movement for Black Lives, the Working Families Party, the Women’s March, and others groups have built a nonpartisan coalition called Frontline Election Defenders. More than 10,000 people have signed up and are being trained in nonviolent discipline and de-escalation techniques. They will stand outside urban polling stations, watching for trouble and stepping in if needed.
Threats of intimidation aren’t new — and rarely materialize, according to Elena Nunez of Common Cause. “These tactics are about creating fear and intimidating people,” she said, “so that potential voters stay away. Our goal is to get out the message that it’s safe.” Common Cause, the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, and other groups are also training poll-watching volunteers to monitor polling places and scan social media, and they are ready to help solve voting problems quickly — whether broken machines, provisional ballots or harassment.
The local coalitions and the national groups are also informing their constituents that — given an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots — the count this year will take time, and the results will probably not be known on Election Day. That’s “a feature, not a bug,” Nunez said. It’s democracy in action. Some are planning public rallies to encourage and support election administrators trying to count every vote. They want to head off any effort to shut down the count.
Because violence in the streets isn’t necessarily the thing to fear most.
Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and expert in mass nonviolent movements, argues that the Republican Party’s actual plans are plainly visible, as the Senate rushed through Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to grab a super-majority on the Supreme Court. Already in every state, civil rights and Democratic Party lawyers are fighting legal challenges to fair election procedures. They’re contending with a record number of federal judges that Senate Republicans have pushed through under Trump. Some of those challenges will make it to the top. The president himself has predicted that the Supreme Court will decide the election — and that court now has a 6-3 conservative (or even reactionary) majority.
That’s everyone’s bigger concern: government institutions stamping a legal imprimatur on an illegitimate result.
Chenoweth emphasized that halting such a power grab will require true mass mobilization — not just with committed Democrats but also with outraged citizens from every slice of society. Organizations such as HoldTheLineGuide.com, ChooseDemocracy.us, and ProtectTheResults.org are trying to get everyone possible — governors, business leaders, activists, you and me — to pledge to defend the result. They want to train citizens in nonviolence so we’re ready. If there’s institutional malfeasance, they’ll alert all of us where to show up to take to the streets, shutting down the country rather than allowing a minority to illegitimately seize control.
Of course, the first and most important goal is to make sure everyone has “a plan to vote, to vote early, to build the biggest blue wave possible,” said Sarah Dohl of Indivisible. So far, we’re seeing blocks-long early voting lines in Houston and Atlanta and Detroit, all Democratic strongholds. Nearly 1.2 million people in Massachusetts have already voted. Even if that blue wave isn’t discernible on election night, many groups are readying “to mobilize people should Trump try to subvert the will of the people,” Dohl said.
Chenoweth points out that Americans have a centuries-long tradition of fighting to defend and extend democracy’s promises, which includes the recent Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBTQ movement, the 1960s antiwar movement, the early-20th-century civil rights movement, the 70-year-long women’s suffrage movement, and of course, the abolition movement. If necessary, we can do it again.
E.J. Graff is managing editor of The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post.