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Concerns of political violence loom days before the midterms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today the head of the U.S. Capitol Police said his agency needs more resources to adequately protect members of Congress in the current political climate. This comes just days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband was physically attacked in their San Francisco home. And these events have renewed concerns over the possibility of political violence around the midterm elections. Both NPR's Odette Yousef and Miles Parks have been looking into that possibility and join us now. Hi to both of you.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Odette, I want to start with you. I mean, just how concerned is law enforcement right now about the threat of violence during this election?

YOUSEF: Well, Ailsa, just some context first - you know, we've been building to this concern for years. One really shocking statistic is that in 2021, the Capitol Police reported 9,600 direct or indirect threats against members of Congress. And that's more than 10 times what it reported in 2016. But on Friday several federal agencies circulated an internal bulletin specifically focused on the risks around these midterms. And the bulletin said that extremists pose a heightened threat during this election cycle, most likely from what it calls lone offenders motivated by this now-widespread belief on the right that U.S. elections are corrupt and also motivated by certain hot-button social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. And targets of this violence could range from candidates to elected officials to voters and could take place at places like drop box campaign events and more.

CHANG: And, Odette, when you talk about threats, is law enforcement pointing to, like, general vitriol online, or are there specific, targeted plans for violence that they're focusing on?

YOUSEF: Well, so far, we're not hearing about specific or coordinated plans, but we are seeing a couple of things that are concerning - first, again, this widespread belief in election fraud combined with the potential calls to violence, which have become, frankly, much more common these last two years. The second concern is about voter intimidation. You know, Ailsa, Arizona has become sort of the poster child of this recently because some people were posting up with weapons and tactical gear at drop boxes, ostensibly to monitor voters.

PARKS: And I'll also add - you know, Odette mentioned this idea of this lone offender theme when it comes to violence, but ballot box monitoring and election monitoring is not happening randomly. You know, Republicans nationally over the past two years have really been pushing for this sort of citizen oversight over elections. We saw this a little bit after the 2020 election. But they've really built an infrastructure aimed at pushing this sort of oversight. We're hearing this from candidates at the secretary of state level and also in places - far-right places like Steve Bannon's podcast, pushing people to kind of do this sort of monitoring.

CHANG: OK. So, Odette, what should we be looking for as we move closer to election day?

YOUSEF: Well, I spoke to Shannon Hiller about this. She's with the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton. And interestingly, she says she's actually feeling pretty good about how things will go on election day itself.

SHANNON HILLER: Even if we look back to 2020, we saw very little violence around election day itself. There was lots of preparation and has been even more preparation by government and non-government groups to ensure that that's the case this year again.

YOUSEF: So, Ailsa, the bigger concern really is the period after voting day. Hiller said she's going to be keeping a close eye on places like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that are really charged politically, especially if election results are delayed due to recounts or litigation.

CHANG: OK, so potentially bracing for something. But, Miles, what are we hearing from voting officials on all of this?

PARKS: Well, we're hearing a lot about poll monitors, people who want to be poll watchers who believe conspiracies that the elections are stolen. And that kind of puts local election officials in a little bit of a bind. You know, on one hand, this could be a really good opportunity to educate some of these people and potentially bring them out of some of these conspiratorial rabbit holes about elections. But also, it can be kind of a powder keg if people who are actually involved in the mechanisms of elections believe there is fraud and want to do things to try to, you know, find that fraud. I talked about that with Spencer Overton, who's a voting expert at George Washington University.

SPENCER OVERTON: It's not about service. It's not about volunteering. But it's about political activism and vindicating an election from a couple of years ago. That can result in real conflict.

PARKS: All of this can also have this effect of voter intimidation that Odette mentioned earlier. You know, even in the many places where these sorts of things aren't happening, voters are seeing headlines about them and potentially could say, oh, no, you know, maybe I won't go cast my ballot just because I don't want to bother with the trouble.

CHANG: Right. Well, Odette, we've been talking all along about concern around this midterm election. That said, midterms are, at least historically, less charged than presidential elections. So I'm wondering, like, are extremism experts already looking ahead to 2024?

YOUSEF: Yes. I mean, many of them have been calling these midterms a dry run for 2024, Ailsa, in terms of testing what people will be able to get away with when it comes to confronting people at voting booths or at polling stations. But, you know, they also say it could be a dry run for people who want to protect democracy, too - so, you know, law enforcement, government institutions, everyone committed to protecting our democratic norms.

CHANG: That is NPR's Odette Yousef and Miles Parks. Thanks to both of you.

PARKS: Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.