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Pa., counties prepare to secure polling sites amid fears of militia, hate groups

Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA, Emily Previti of WITF and Ramesh Santanam of Postindustrial
Members of a militia walk past a tourist as they patrol the area surrounding the Gettysburg National Cemetery Saturday, July 4, 2020, at Gettysburg National Military Park, in Gettysburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

HARRISBURG — Tensions ahead of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania are running high.

The race is more politicized than ever, voters fear mail delays or court rulings could invalidate their votes, and President Donald Trump is holding rallies throughout the state warning, with no evidence, of widespread efforts by Democrats to rig the election.

That has left some voters, especially those who routinely confront racism and discrimination, concerned about intimidation at the polls. A recent report by a worldwide nonprofit that tracks militia groups said Pennsylvania is one of five U.S. states at high risk of violence through Nov. 3. The claim is based on recent activity by supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia and the  3%-ers.

But an author of the report and other experts said militias and hate groups are rarely as organized as they seem and that widespread problems are unlikely. Still, state, county  and local officials are taking the threat seriously and implementing extra precautions for this election.

“People aren’t going to be looking to start fights in any sort of organized way,” said Hampton Stall, a conflict anthropologist who co-authored the report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. “This is not to say that there won’t be voter intimidation. … But it’s not the same thing as malicious organizing around early voting, which is something I’m not seeing.”

More:York County triples election workers, plans to scan all ballots on Election Day

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology-, agreed, with the context that it would require a lot of stamina for militia members to rally for the entire 13 hours when polls are open.

“As to militia groups, the thing I’m noticing is that they talk a good game, but they rarely deliver,” said Stewart. “People may show up, wave some flags, maybe accost some people, but 13 hours is a long time and tends to wear against people.”

Still, local law enforcement officials said they’re preparing for a worst-case scenario in locations where people are most concerned.

In Allegheny County, police officers aren’t allowed to take time off for five days after the election, said Christopher Kearns, assistant superintendent of the county’s police department.

“We have not done this before on election days,” he said. “We may need the manpower.”

Allegheny County County Controller Chelsa Wagner also sent for the first time explicit Election Day instructions to constables — an obscure elected position that acts as a peace officer at polling locations — who can enforce the rules along with the judge of elections.

“This may be the first election in recent memory where they may be integral to the process,” said Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel at the controller’s office.

Responding to fears by voters in Erie County, elections officials said Tuesday that openly armed people will be forced to leave the grounds if they’re not voting, a move that could land in court, as Spotlight PA reported  recently.

More:York County's DA, top police officials urge Election Day civility and respect in PSA video

Voting rights advocates have  worried for months about an armed presence at the polls, severe unrest and other threats to voters on Nov. 3. Their concerns have grown since the primaries, they said, so they have expanded and recruited more volunteers for their networks already in place in Pennsylvania.

At least 3,100 volunteers across multiple organizations, such as Common Cause, the ACLU and Keystone Votes, will monitor in-person voting sites for problems and report them via the nonpartisan Election Protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

Staff at call centers will field tips and respond by either sending teams to polls, getting top county voting officials involved or sending attorneys to court.

The Center for Popular Democracy, a nationwide coalition encompassing more than 50 grassroots groups and voting rights organizations, has been running virtual training sessions for so-called “voter guardians,” volunteers who will pair up to spend Election Day at in-person voting sites in seven competitive states, including Pennsylvania.

“Folks need to be able to know that when they’re going to cast their ballot that they’re going to remain unharmed, that they’re going to be safe,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, the center’s national civic engagement and political manager. “What we saw during the primary, around the time of the uprisings and around the time of the increased racial tensions, was less safety — particularly for a lot of the communities that we work with.”

Some of the preparation, such as reviewing state laws, was already part of advocates' election prep routines. This year’s training was updated with de-escalation tactics for issues voters face in 2020: a pandemic, civil unrest and unprecedented strain on the nation’s election system.

For many groups, prospects of militia, while ominous, are not seen at the biggest risks for voter disenfranchisement — especially in communities of color.

“It’s nothing different than what our communities see every day as far as policies that apply differently to us versus folks that look like (members of) right-wing militia groups,” Ogunmefun said. “There are larger things we should be thinking about that aren’t in the box of right-wing militia.”

— Additional reporting by Tom Lisi for Spotlight PA and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.