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As Election Suspicions Increase, Experts Warn Conditions Are Ripe For Conflict


All right. With Election Day less than a week off now, anxiety is running high. There's a lot of distrust, a lot of suspicion. Activists and extremists on both the right and left are worried the other side is going to somehow steal the election. And they're making plans for what to do if that happens. Experts are warning this is a toxic brew and that conditions are ripe for conflict and, maybe, even violence. NPR's Joel Rose has been looking into all of this. Hi, Joel.


GREENE: So you - I know you've been talking to people from across the political spectrum. I mean, as you listen to what they're saying, what are your impressions?

ROSE: Well, people are really worried. I mean, on the right, they're concerned about the integrity of mail-in ballots. They're hearing from President Trump, who is stoking those fears by claiming, without evidence, that the system is rife with fraud. And on the left, people are worried about another scenario. In their worst fears, Trump is ahead on election night and either his campaign or his Justice Department tries to end vote-counting prematurely. And disputes over vote-counting could go on for days or weeks. So activists on both sides are making plans to mobilize.

GREENE: Well, what does mobilize look like? I mean, we've been hearing about these doomsday scenarios for weeks now about what might happen. Where could this all lead?

ROSE: Well, I've been talking to experts on conflict resolution. Many of them monitor elections around the world. But this year, for the first time, they are turning their attention to the U.S. election. And they're worried about the potential for violence here, especially if protesters from different sides collide out in the streets. I talked to Hrair Balian. He grew up in Lebanon and has worked in places like the Balkans and former Soviet states. Now he's the director of the Conflict Resolution Program at the Carter Center. And Balian says he's been tracking deepening polarization in the U.S. along racial and political lines.

HRAIR BALIAN: We have become intolerant. We have started dehumanizing the other side. We are at the edge of an abyss. And we better see this and try to step back before it is too late.

ROSE: Other experts I've talked to say they're seeing the potential for conflict, too. And I've been talking to regular people on both sides who are feeling this rising tension.

ELAINE DUNCAN: There's a lot of anxiety. I think there's some fear. I think there's some anger. You know, how could this be happening?

ROSE: Elaine Duncan (ph) lives in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. Duncan and the members of her Quaker congregation have been planning what they're going to do if President Trump tries to declare victory before all states have finished counting the ballots.

DUNCAN: We are organizing affinity groups to take to the streets, if need be, to make life difficult if there is an attempted coup, a power grab, by the Trump administration.

ROSE: They're so concerned that they're using the word coup to describe what might happen, even if it involves lawyers and not the military. For the last few weeks, they've been holding virtual training sessions on Zoom. They talk about the Quaker tradition of nonviolent resistance and about how they might apply those principles to the current moment. The sessions are led by fellow Quaker Michael Levy (ph).

MICHAEL LEVY: When coups are defeated, they're defeated very rapidly. And we're talking about three days to a week. So if there is going to be an attempted coup, we need a lot of people to act very quickly.

ROSE: They're also worried about a violent response from supporters of the president. President Trump has drawn a lot of criticism for telling his far-right supporters, some of whom have a track record of violence, to, quote, "stand by." This weighs on Kirstin Zolfo (ph), too. Zolfo lives in Bucks County, Pa., outside Philadelphia, where she's helping organize a demonstration for the day after the election, part of a nationwide effort called Protect the Results.

KIRSTIN ZOLFO: There is always a touch of fear that goes with armed groups that could show up to try to intimidate people. But I think it's important to support the fact that everyone's vote counts. We feel that that's more important than letting fear rule our decisions.

ROSE: The Trump campaign has recruited a, quote, "army" of citizen poll watchers. And there's concern, particularly on the left, about the role self-styled militias could play after a teenager allegedly shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wis., earlier this year, and after the FBI says it thwarted a plot in Michigan to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But the militia leaders I talked to say that's not what they're about.

WALT MADSEN: We're not going to just go start a fight. It's not going to happen. And I'm not going to go down to Chicago or Kenosha or Minneapolis or Washington, D.C. I'm not going to go there.

ROSE: Walt Madsen is the head of a group that calls itself the U.S. Northern Militia in Wisconsin. He's an Iraq war veteran who's now a county supervisor. Madsen says he's been talking to a lot of other militia leaders. And many of them feel like he does.

MADSEN: If Joe Biden does win the election, I'm not going to sit there and scream he's not my president, OK? I'm not going to go and take my militia and threaten the lives of other Americans.

ROSE: In fact, some of these militia leaders say they are afraid of the protesters on the left.

MADSEN: No matter what way the election goes, there's going to be people dissatisfied with the result. And the possibility for unrest is quite strong.

ROSE: Michael Lackomar is a team leader of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia. Lackomar says the members of his group are preparing to protect their communities if there's rioting or violent unrest, like the protests earlier this year in Seattle and Portland.

MICHAEL LACKOMAR: If you're coming at my house and my family's there, I'm going to do everything in my power and every tool in my box to make sure that my family is safe.

GREENE: These voices, they're coming to us from our colleague Joel Rose, who is still with us. And, Joel, it sounds like both sides are saying, hey, we're not going to start the violence. But we have to be ready if the other side does something. I mean, so what do we make of this?

ROSE: Well, you know, violence is certainly not a given. The experts I talked to say it is not too late to walk back from the brink. But they say it is really important for political leaders on all sides to de-escalate tensions in case there is a long, contested election. Stephen Pomper is with the International Crisis Group, which usually works overseas and is now monitoring this election.

STEPHEN POMPER: Probably the biggest issue is the president of the United States right now, who has portrayed himself as somebody who, you know, is not necessarily interested in calming the waters and who might actually court unrest in order to serve his political and personal goals.

GREENE: So Joel, what - how seriously are authorities taking the threat of violence?

ROSE: Seriously. I mean, police departments and the National Guard are definitely thinking about this and strategizing about how to keep everybody safe in the days or weeks ahead. Like I said, widespread violence is not a given. It's maybe not even likely. But the takeaway for me is that the conditions are there for it to happen with the right spark in a way that would have been unthinkable eight years ago or even four years ago. And now it really is very thinkable.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thanks for all this reporting. We appreciate it.

ROSE: Yeah. You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZERO 7'S "WHEN IT FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.