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Crisis Group Highlights Risk of Electoral Violence in the United States

At the beginning of October, the International Crisis Group announced that for the first time in its history it would begin to focus on the risk of electoral violence in the United States.

International Crisis Group President and CEO Robert Malley explained that the decision was made following a summer of increasing tensions in the United States following the killing of George Floyd.

“Since then, several things happened: first, developments in the U.S. as we approach the 3 November national elections have seemed to bring us closer to the kind of violence we look at elsewhere in the world; second, our Trustees and staff engaged in a vigorous debate about whether Crisis Group should take the step of covering these developments as we would a parlous election in one of the conflict-prone regions where we traditionally work,” Malley wrote. “I asked some of my colleagues a simple question: through our 25 years of work across the globe, what factors have we identified as warning signs of potential election-related violence?”

International Crisis Group is an independent organization that works to prevent conflict and shape policies to build peace around the world. It was founded in response to the horrific conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia to alert the world to the potential for conflict before it spins out of control. The group’s previous work has identified 12 warning signs of electoral violence:

  • High-stakes elections
  • A polarized electorate
  • The proliferation of hate speech and misinformation
  • Pre-existing ethno-sectarian or racial tensions
  • Elections where both sides are convinced they will win unless their opponent cheats
  • Electoral institutions or processes that are distrusted
  • Highly segregated sources of information
  • Potential for narrow margins of victory
  • Proliferation of weapons
  • Existence of armed non-state actors or militia
  • A political leadership that fuels divisions rather than defuses them
  • The potential for contested electoral outcomes

“If those risk factors seem uncomfortably familiar to U.S.-watchers, it’s because they are all to some degree present in America right now,” Malley added.

International Crisis Group plans to issue briefings on the risk of electoral violence in the weeks ahead as millions of Americans vote by mail or in-person at the polls as part of the U.S. presidential election process.

The decision to focus on the United States was also made prior to indictments released last week against 16 men for their alleged roles in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The men, active members of militia groups, also reportedly discussed kidnapping Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, according to the FBI.

“No one has been charged with plotting to kidnap Northam, but, like Whitmer, Virginia’s governor was the target of intense criticism over the summer from conservatives angry at state-mandated restrictions amid the pandemic,” The Washington Post reports. “[U.S. President Donald Trump] has sharply criticized both governors, tweeting all-caps demands in the spring that their states be ‘liberated.’”

Polls in the United States have recently shown Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden leading President Trump; FiveThirtyEight has Biden up by an average of 10.5 percent in national polls as of the morning of 16 October.

“With polls showing the president behind Mr. Biden nationally and in key states, Mr. Trump has descended into rants about perceived enemies, both inside and outside his administration, triggering in his staunchest supporters such fears for the outcome—possibly a ‘stolen’ election, maybe a coup by the far left—that he is emboldening them to disrupt the voting process, according to national security experts and law enforcement officials,” The New York Times reports.

In June, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) released a report that found the most significant threat of terrorism in the United States stems from white supremacists and that the terrorism threat will likely rise based on several factors, including the November 2020 presidential election.

“Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years,” the CSIS report said. “Right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.

“Second, terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors,” the report continued. “One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election. Far-right and far-left networks have used violence against each other at protests, raising the possibility of escalating violence during the election period.”

CSIS’s findings foreshadowed an annual assessment from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that found that ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups pose the greatest terrorist threat to the United States, with domestic violent extremists (DVEs) presenting the most persistent and lethal threat.

“Some DVEs and other violent actors might target events related to the 2020 Presidential campaigns, the election itself, election results, or the post-election period,” according to the DHS assessment. “Such actors could mobilize quickly to threaten or engage in violence. Violence related to government efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst otherwise ongoing lawful protests has exacerbated the typical election-season threat environment.”

Among DVEs, white supremacist extremists remain the most persistent and lethal threat to the United States. DHS said these extremists have “have engaged in outreach and networking opportunities abroad with like-minded individuals to expand their violent extremist networks. Such outreach might lead to a greater risk of mobilization to violence, including traveling to conflict zones. Other racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists could seek to exploit concerns about social injustice issues to incite violence and exploit otherwise peaceful protests and movements.”

Previously, Security Management wrote about how organizations in Baltimore, Maryland, prepared themselves for protests that could turn violent in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody.

Investment management firm T. Rowe Price, for instance, created a security oversight committee of strategic people within the organization—human resources, legal experts, facilities managers, risk officers, and a communications team. Bill Schieder, head of security for the firm, said the committee “was invaluable in evaluating the needs of the firm, as well as coordinating and sharing intelligence with external organizations such as local law enforcement, government officials, and other organizations.”