Between a global pandemic, an economic crisis and a summer of mass demonstrations, there’s an unprecedented potential for strife and contention at the polls on Tuesday. The country has already seen pockets of political violence this year with civil unrest and the presence of armed militia at Black Lives Matter protests. President Donald Trump has undermined confidence in the voting system, sending out dark warnings to his supporters to go to polling sites and “watch very carefully.” Experts in political violence warn that the president’s directives are likely to influence far-right militia members, who view themselves as soldiers in a civil war and have interpreted past comments from Trump as marching orders.
While legal observers and law enforcement are grappling with all of this, people like Ría Thompson-Washington, a voting rights advocate and the national democracy manager at the Center for Popular Democracy, are leading a grassroots effort to de-escalate routine tensions that could arise on Election Day.
The goal is to make sure that even if there are arguments about masks, police presence or other issues, people can still do what they came to the polls to do: vote.
This summer, Thompson-Washington created the Voter Guardian Program, a nonpartisan initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy that trains people in de-escalation tactics. So far, she has taught over 500 people how to interrupt harmful tensions and potential violence at the polls, and she has four more trainings to go before Election Day.
The Center for Popular Democracy hopes to deploy voter guardians to precincts across the country, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida and states with no statewide mask mandate like Georgia and Arizona.
“A de-escalator is trained in basic First Amendment work, like knowing how to interact with police, being able to speak articulately, and being able to de-escalate harm when it happens,” Thompson-Washington said.
For example, if two people start to argue in line, the voter guardian will seek to defuse the situation so that nobody is driven away before all parties are able to vote. If someone shows up without a mask and refuses to wear one for political reasons, a de-escalator will know how to isolate that person so everybody can vote safely. If someone wears campaign paraphernalia at a polling site (which is banned in many states) or the police show up at the polls, the voter guardian will be trained in how to handle those situations.
Voter guardians should not be confused with poll monitors, whose job it is to ensure that voters are at the right polling place, have the correct identification and are not pushed to vote a provisional ballot when they qualify to vote a regular ballot. Voter guardians are a supplement to that effort, helping poll monitors focus on their jobs by de-escalating any issues that arise before people get to cast their ballots.
The two-hour training program, which is offered remotely and in person, consists of three main parts. The first orients folks on what voting is supposed to feel like. “It’s supposed to be boring, it’s supposed to be simple and it’s supposed to be fast,” Thompson-Washington said during a training session this week.
The second part is more introspective, asking participants to dissect how they personally process trauma and harm. Voter guardians need to understand their own triggers so they know how they’ll react when put in different situations, Thompson-Washington said.
Lastly, the training lays out best practices on how to interact with law enforcement, including how to advocate for yourself and others. The presence of uniformed officers at polling sites can feel like ― and historically has often been ― an attempt at voter intimidation. There have already been concerns about police this year, including a uniformed Miami cop who showed up at a voting location wearing a pro-Trump mask.
After training participants break into groups and role-play several de-escalation scenarios. The Center for Popular Democracy later helps connect the new voter guardians to polling sites in their own states.
Some voting rights activists believe de-escalation tactics will be critical to ensuring people are able to cast ballots on Nov. 3. Thompson-Washington said she even worries somewhat about more extreme situations like people weaponizing their coughs or bringing guns to a voting site. And her worries seem justified after listening to Trump on the campaign trail.
The president’s rhetoric has set the stage for his followers to reject the election’s results unless he wins. Besides repeatedly and falsely claiming that mail-in voting will lead to widespread voter fraud, he has called into question the integrity of in-person voting ― and effectively urged his supporters to engage in voter intimidation. During the first presidential debate in late September, Trump told his fans “to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” a suggestion he also made in 2016 and 2018.
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., called for supporters to protect the integrity of all voting in a campaign video from September. “We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation at defendyourballot.com,” Trump Jr. said in the video. “We need you to help us watch them. Not just on Election Day, but also during early voting and at the counting boards. President Trump is going to win. Don’t let them steal it.”
A recent joint report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and Militiawatch found that armed militia groups “pose a serious threat to the safety and security of American voters” this year, especially in swing states.
In the past, Trump’s attempts to galvanize his supporters to monitor polling sites haven’t lead to significant disruptions. That is why some voting advocates like Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the pro-democracy organization Common Cause, are cautious when describing what voters might face at the polls.
“The threat of violence … in and of itself can be a deterrent to people. The continuing discussion and planning sort of adds to the tension,” Albert said.
So she added, “What I’ve been trying to get across is the voter’s job is to go vote. I want them to know that there are lots of people that have their back and are going to be working to ensure that their vote is counted as cast.”
Thompson-Washington said her ultimate goal is for people to understand the importance of voting and then to vote without barriers, including the kinds of situations she’s preparing volunteers to de-escalate.
“We’re arming ourselves with knowledge and our constitutional rights. It’s optimistic and sometimes idealistic, but we have to continue to maintain that energy because that’s the only way we’re going to win,” she said. “And I don’t think winning is about who’s in the White House; it’s about how we organize and strategize to use this moment to come together in our collective power.”
As a self-described queer AfroLatinX and Black Southerner, she grew up watching her mother cook big pots of gumbo and invite the neighbors over so she could help them with their taxes or workers’ compensation claims. Her mom wasn’t an accountant or a lawyer but she had a knack for numbers and loved helping people ― “the first community organizer I ever met,” Thompson-Washington said.
“Voting is the tool that we have to create the society that we want to live in,” she said. “I see this civic participation — this simple thing that should be so easy and boring — as a very direct means of making the change that I want in my life.”