Risks of political violence and voter intimidation loom over midterms

Old lies about the 2020 election are posing new threats of political violence and voter intimidation in this year's midterms. Mary McCord is Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a former Justice Department prosecutor. She joined Judy Woodruff to discuss how local officials can protect their residents and the vote.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Old, lingering lies about the 2020 election are posing new threats of political violence and voter intimidation in this year's midterms.

    Joining us now to discuss this is Mary McCord, director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and protection. She's also a former Justice Department prosecutor. And she's been advising local officials about how to protect their residents and the vote.

    Mary McCord, thank you very much for being with us.

    So, tell us what you are seeing. You have been watching this in recent months. You have watched it build as we get closer to the election. What are you seeing and how does it have seeds in what happened in 2020?

  • Mary McCord, Former Justice Department Official:

    Well, it's the same disinformation about election fraud that was the fuel for the violence on January 6, 2021. It's that same disinformation today that is threatening political violence related to our elections.

    And by political violence, I don't just mean physical violence. I mean intimidation, voter intimidation, intimidation and threats and harassment against our election workers, aggressive recruitment of poll watchers from groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers to be really a force for intimidation at the polls, and other types of really anti-democratic processes that are being driven, again, by the same disinformation and lies about the 2020 election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what are the — I mean, you named some examples.

    Give us some specifics on what you most worry about could happen on Election Day.

  • Mary McCord:

    So the thing that we're really, I think, the most worried about is just voters being intimidated from coming.

    So what we have already seen is efforts — and your viewers have probably seen this and you — of people setting up cameras to videotape people as they're trying to drop their ballots in ballot boxes. We have seen some even going in military kits and with arms.

    And we have seen — we have even heard of people questioning voters or suggesting that what they're doing by voting is illegal, particularly if they're maybe depositing of a ballot of an elderly family member or friend. And contrary to what the disinformation out there, that is not a violation of federal law and it's not a violation of most state laws, yet the idea is to intimidate people into thinking they're doing something wrong, so they won't show up.

    And this is part of this decentralized, localized effort. There are — there are organizations that are recruiting for it nationwide, but there's no single puppet master, so it's kind of harder to come back because it's coming up at this localized level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying it's being organized now more at the ground, at that grassroots level.

  • Mary McCord:

    That's right, at your jurisdiction, at your local polling place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how widespread is it? Do you have a handle on how many places this is happening?

  • Mary McCord:

    So, every day, I get new information about sort of a new example, including some very troublesome information about instances in one county in Pennsylvania where even law enforcement, deputy sheriffs are deploying and asking people about their qualifications to vote.

    I would say right now I'm seeing it more in swing states than others. And that makes sense, because those who are seeking to really impact this election are focused on the swing states. And that's where they're recruiting these aggressive poll watchers and recruiting people to come out to ballot — to ballot drop boxes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when you see — I mean, is there a pattern to whom they're targeting or what kinds of locations?

  • Mary McCord:

    We have seen — we have seen both the targeting of voters by efforts at ballot drop boxes and outside early voting stations.

    And, sometimes, these are just signs, like misleading signs suggesting that this ballot box is under surveillance or harvesting ballots is unlawful, even though that's not even a term under law. And it's not unlawful where that happened to take place.

    But we're also seeing targets against election workers and intimidation of election workers, which is why you have seen a lot of them actually get physical security around their offices. And we're worried, of course, that, during the post-election period, while ballots are being tabulated, that there may be intimidation and harassment, like we saw in 2020.

    But I don't want viewers to feel — voters to feel intimidated from going, because I think, by getting the word out there about this, and how illegal it is — it's not protected by the First Amendment, it's not protected by the Second Amendment to be armed, watching polling — polling locations — that, hopefully, this will deter some of the bad actors from continuing to do what they're doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What — and so how are local officials pushing back?

  • Mary McCord:

    Yes.

    So, on Monday, I spoke to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and police chiefs, along with former police Chief Chuck Ramsey, and one of the things we're suggesting is be meeting right now, localize, your mayors, your police chiefs, sheriffs, voting rights groups, the party representatives, election officials, and make a plan for what's best in your community.

    In some places, that might be law enforcement coming to polls, but in other places, law enforcement at the polls would be even more intimidating. So, you need to know what works in your particular community, based on your residents and how — what their relations is like — relationship is like with elected officials.

    The other thing is, I also think it's very important coming out of that, with that planning, for elected officials at all levels of state and local and federal government to be making strong statements that voter intimidation will not be tolerated, it is criminal, it is in violation of federal law, it is in violation of state law, and prosecutions may occur.

    Because what we have done in 2020 is that sort of threat and risk of prosecution is something that some of the groups that had been planning activities on Election Day changed those plans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So it had some effect.

    And just quickly, Mary McCord, what about individuals? Is there something people should be on the lookout for?

  • Mary McCord:

    Yes, I think that, to the extent that they're seeing efforts, whether it's signage, whether it's people following voters to their cars or taking pictures of their license plates, report that activity to your local election officials or to your district attorney, whoever you feel comfortable reporting it to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, really, really important to be following all this right now.

    Mary McCord, thank you.

  • Mary McCord:

    Thank you for having me.

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