MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – During last month’s presidential debate, President Trump encouraged his supporters to “go to the polls and watch very closely.” His call to action was followed by claims that voter fraud was already occurring this election cycle, citing alleged examples in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that were debunked within days by government officials.
But a report by the Department of Homeland Security released earlier this month suggests that one of federal law enforcement’s top concerns this November 3 isn’t ballots being dumped into rivers or fraudulent mail-in voting – it’s domestic extremists at polling sites.
The DHS report explicitly acknowledges that “domestic violent extremists,” or DVEs, are the most likely groups to engage in Election Day violence. “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,” the report states, adding that, “such actors could mobilize quickly to threaten or engage in violence.”
The report also suggests that, “Open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure, such as campaign-associated mass gatherings, polling places, and voter registration events, would be the most likely flashpoints for potential violence.”
In West Virginia, local law enforcement are quick to downplay concern about such groups, and so far there have been no reports in the state of plans or efforts by groups to intimidate voters. But experts and federal law enforcement have expressed concern that the type of armed violence and intimidation used by similar groups against civil rights activists and COVID-19 related government orders this summer may be a foreshadowing of violence on or after Election Day.
In a statement published last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center called on voters to protect their vote against intimidation at the polls:
“Right-wing activists and self-styled militias mobilized first this year as part of anti-lockdown protests and later in response to the nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, taking to the streets in an effort to counter the racial justice advocates, antifascists and leftists they consider political adversaries. For many in the far right, the contest taking place at the polls is simply a continuation of the one they’ve been carrying out in the streets: It’s an effort to take a stand against groups they see as domestic enemies and impose their own version of “order.”
West Virginia has a long history with domestic extremism in all of its flavors. The Klu Klux Klan had so-called “Klaverns” across the state in the 1940s, according to one study of period documents. The SPLC’s website shows that, as of 2019, there were at least three white nationalist groups in the state – one participated in the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, Neo-Nazi rally. Meanwhile, militia style groups are an open secret in West Virginia, but overt violence has been a rare occurrence in recent years. In 1996, seven West Virginians were arrested by the FBI for a plot to attack an FBI building in Clarksburg. Their group, the “Mountaineer Militia,” openly recruited members through fliers posted around the state. Today, there are at least four active militia style groups operating in West Virginia alone and dozens of similar groups from neighboring states that frequently travel through West Virginia for training and protests. Until recently, Facebook groups were the preferred recruitment tool. Now that most have been removed from the social media site, they use encrypted chat apps and militia oriented websites to communicate.
“The way that these groups are often organized is in response to political dynamics that are being observed. What becomes a very clear spatial indicator of that is where they run into people who have, for example, Biden signs in some yards. So they can still be pretty small towns, but there are pockets of people who disagree politically,” explained Hampton Stall, editor in chief of MilitiaWatch, an independent research blog that recently published a joint report with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED.
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In neighboring Pennsylvania, widespread concerns about potential violence at voting locations prompted Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association to team up as prosecutors to “ensure the election process is free from fraud, intimidation and other violations of the law.”
“We will not hesitate to use our authority to hold people accountable for violating our Election Code, which gives Pennsylvanians the right to have their vote count and to cast their vote free from intimidation,” Shapiro said in a recent statement.
West Virginia county government and law enforcement officials reported a lack of any training or advice from state elections officials on countering potential DVE in-person threats to this year’s election, but they also were quick to say that they don’t expect any violence or intimidation incidents to happen. Law enforcement officers who’ve worked multiple elections suggested that the worst Election Day violations they’ve dealt with were people placing signs too close to polling sites and the occasional power failure requiring a frantic search for generators, and none appear concerned about Election Day intimidation or violence.
According to Preston County Sheriff Dan Loughrie, the strategy for Election Day security is, “whatever happens at the time, it happens. I’ve been here eight years and I’ve never had any issues.” As for the threat of domestic extremist activity, “we’re not concerned with that, not at this point.”
But only a month ago, extremism reared its head in Preston County, when a small group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators were met by more than 50 armed counterprotesters in front of Loughrie’s office in Kingwood, West Virginia. In many ways, Kingwood embodies how a tumultuous and sometimes violent summer across America played out in small-town Appalachia. Only a month and a half before that demonstration in the county seat, a small BLM demonstration in the neighboring town of Terra Alta was peaceful, resulting in calm conversations between the BLM demonstrators and members of an armed counter movement, serving as a touchstone of pride for communities who feared widespread violence and bigotry. By September, something had changed.
Rumors on Facebook circulated among counterprotesters before the September 12 demonstration in Kingwood that claimed, without evidence, “busloads” of protesters from Baltimore or Pittsburgh were heading to the mountain community. Many counterprotesters cited a semi-viral video of restaurant-goers in Pittsburgh antagonized by BLM activists as evidence that the small protest in their town was a threat to the community.
The counterprotest in Kingwood was attended by a variety of groups that the DHS report warned of in its October threat assessment. At least three neo-Nazis stood alongside three percenters, militia members from Pennsylvania, dozens of Trump supporters and other Preston County locals armed with rifles as they berated the small group of BLM supporters, which included state delegate Danielle Walker, who later wrote an open letter to the governor asking him to condemn the openly racist verbal attacks she experienced that day. Governor Jim Justice publicly announced that he’d directed the West Virginia State Police and the West Virginia Human Rights Commission to investigate the incident, but Preston County Sheriff’s Department officials said the protest was overblown and an anomaly, not representative of the political climate in the area.
On the other hand, Stall of MilitiaWatch said the protest in Kingwood and similar incidents in the state may be a cause for deeper concern come Election Day. “That’s a huge red flag, I’d say, for a couple different reasons. But specifically, networked right wing violence relies very heavily on patterns. If there’s been action in that particular location, especially if it’s been a highly tense situation, those events can replicate themselves and escalate. So, if it’s a space where these guys saw it as a victory, as a uniting event that will almost certainly replicate itself should those networks remain active.”
West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner has an unambiguous message for anyone tempted to follow the President’s call to action or other calls to show up at polling sites: “They’re not allowed to go inside the polling sites, they’re not allowed within 100 feet. That’s not permissible in West Virginia.”
According to West Virginia law, no one other than poll workers and voters is allowed within 100 feet of a polling location on Election Day. While the law is unambiguous, there’s been enough incidents in neighboring states – Trump supporters harassed voters in Virginia during early voting and videotaped voters dropping off ballots in Philadelphia – to give some cause for concern. Local concerns about the election appear to roughly fall along partisan lines: Democrat voters are concerned about Election Day intimidation by Trump supporters and right wing groups, while conservative voters are distrustful of mail-in voting and fear violence by “antifa.”
At a small pro-Trump truck parade in Fairmont, West Virginia, on October 25, Shawn Devericks, who’s been involved in pro-Trump organizing since 2016, expressed concern about the upcoming election.
“I think that people will actually do what’s right, in a sense, but you’ve got to keep on a lookout for everything. With the militias going around and antifa, Black Lives Matter, everybody else, there’s going to be intimidation.”
Standing next to another Trump supporter’s truck with a Three Percenter sticker in the window, Devericks said that, while he doesn’t expect issues at the polls on November 3, reports of left wing activists at polling sites could draw people to action. “If you’re going to come armed and dangerous, Trump supporters are coming armed. Not saying dangerous, but we believe in the Second Amendment. West Virginia is an open carry state.”
Devericks is not, by any means, an extremist. But his concerns about the election – and what he thinks would justify armed civilians at polling sites – speak to a growing concern about the potential for voter intimidation on Election Day, according to Stall.
“The fact that we see a lot of discussion about the election ‘being stolen’ by Biden, that’s something that’s highly notable here,” he said, “because even if it doesn’t actually happen, is a Trump loss going to be fully accepted by some of these people? Or is it going to be seen as a coup organized by the Democrats? In which case, response is not only likely, but for many groups will be seen as mandatory.”
The single case of attempted election fraud reported this year in the state was an effort by a U.S. Postal Worker to change party affiliations on eight absentee ballot request forms to Republican. The ballot applications were intercepted and, according to Warner, the USPS Inspector General’s Office assisted the state and federal investigators in prosecuting the mail carrier in Pendleton County, who pleaded guilty to the charges.
Elected officials from both sides of the aisle were quick to defend election security efforts and assure voters that West Virginia’s elections are safe, whether one votes in person or by mail. But some West Virginians still echo the President’s claims that mail-in voting is insecure.
According to Warner, more than 300 law enforcement agencies, from county sheriff’s departments to their Department of Defense cybersecurity liaisons, will be operating on November 3 in West Virginia. But while the secretary and other state and federal law enforcement departments were quick to point out their coordination and preparation for Election Day security, none were willing to comment directly on their plans to specifically counter potential Election Day violence or in-person intimidation by extremists (the West Virginia State Police declined interview requests for this story).
While violence by extremists has been almost nonexistent in West Virginia, incidents in other states have brought the issue to national attention recently. On Thursday, October 8th, the FBI announced they’d thwarted a plot by Michigan militia members who were allegedly planning to overthrow the state government before Election Day, a plan that would begin with the kidnapping of Democratic Governor Gretchen Witmer. The arrests of those involved – and revelations that the plot began in early 2020 and had members and targets in other states – emphasized concerns by journalists, analysts and even the United Nations Security Council that America is currently in the midst of a wave of extremist violence by far-right, anti-government and white supremacist groups across the country.
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“Violent extremist media almost certainly will spread violent extremist ideologies, especially via social media, that encourage violence and influence action within the United States,” the October DHS report notes – a hallmark of the boogaloo movement, in which the sharing of memes that openly endorse or advocate for the extrajudicial murder of “communists,” Black Lives Matter activists and law enforcement officers is common. “Violent extremists will continue their efforts to exploit public fears associated with COVID-19 and social grievances driving lawful protests to incite violence, intimidate targets, and promote their violent extremist ideologies,” says the study. A description that fits the profile of armed anti-mask protesters who occupied the Michigan state capitol in April and groups of armed citizens who claimed to “protect property” from overwhelmingly peaceful BLM demonstrations across the country – including Berkeley Springs, Parkersburg and Kingwood in West Virginia.
Perhaps most telling is the description of what type of tactics the DHS report attributes to DVEs: Vehicle ramming, small arms, edged weapons and IEDs are all core tactics of the various groups that fall under the “far-right extremist” umbrella. By August 2020, more than 40 people in the U.S. had been charged after attacking BLM protesters with their vehicles. In Appalachia, the FBI arrested a man for planting explosives along the route of a BLM march in Pittsburgh – one of three men in Pennsylvania alone arrested this summer for illegal explosives. A group of BLM activists walking from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., were met with gunfire in rural Pennsylvania.
The report does include one tactic that has been more associated with anarchists and so-called “antifa” activists: arson. While so far only one person has been killed by a self-described “antifa” activist during an altercation at a far right rally in Portland, Oregon, there have been a few instances of arson used against government and commercial property in major cities during BLM associated demonstrations – though none of these arson attacks have resulted in death, and none have occurred or been directed at election efforts.
According to Stall, while there may not be clear indications of specific groups planning violence on Election Day in West Virginia, “we have to read between the lines a lot here.”
“Thinking about right wing activism in the United States,” Stall said, “the bigger picture of it is often fears of what is to come, rather than what is actually happening.”
This article was co-published with 100 Days in Appalachia, an independent, nonprofit digital news publication incubated at the Media Innovation Center at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media. Chris Jones is a Report for America corps member covering domestic extremism for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support his investigative reporting through the GroundTruth initiative.