Americans worried about Election Day violence and chaos

Most experts predict violence in the United States this Election Day, given isolated incidents that have already taken place this year. Across the country, Americans are stocking up and preparing to hunker down to ride out a possible wave of sustained election-related chaos. They are buying guns and ammunition in record numbers and getting ready to peel off political bumper stickers and yank out yard signs to make themselves less of a target in case the other guy wins. Some are fleeing for remote areas or custom built bunkers and safe rooms.

Federal agents detain a woman early on July 27, 2020, outside of the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, during a protest.

“Everyone I know is concerned both about voter intimidation at the polls and potential violence as we get results from the election, and sort of what that might look like, not just around the election, but between the election and the inauguration,” says Carolyn Gallaher, a professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C., and an expert on extremist violence in the United States.

While the U.S. has a long history of violent protest, from firebombings and shootings at abortion clinics by anti-abortion extremists to the 25 bombings committed by left-wing Weather Underground terror group opposing the Vietnam War and racism, experts say widespread predictions of election-related violence are unprecedented.

People wait in a long line to vote at an early voting location at the Renaissance Austin Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Austin, Texas.

Further fueling potential violence: The staggering number of guns bought this year. According to FBI statistics, gun dealers in June ran more than 3.9 million background checks on purchasers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — the highest number ever recorded in a single month.

While background checks are not an exact measure of gun sales, they’re a widely used proxy. Gun sellers in the first nine months of 2020 have conducted more checks than they did in all 2019, which held the previous record for a year at 28.3 million.

“The violence will occur either way,” says Gallaher. “If Biden wins, it will be an excuse to try to delegitimize the results and to go after perceived enemies on the left, and of course, that means labeling pretty much anyone that you disagree with Antifa. But I worry, too, if Trump wins, this will be a signal to these far-right groups that have supported him, extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, other groups like this, that they will see this is like open season to go after people that have been opponents of Trump. So even if he wins that, you know, I think the violence is going to happen. It’s going to be sort of opening the door.”

This summer, human rights group Amnesty International documented about 200 violent conflicts between protest groups out of approximately 12,000 protests nationally. Of those, most violence occurred when armed right-wing groups showed up to confront otherwise peaceful protesters, Amnesty said.

On Friday, the Justice Department announced the arrest of a Texas man, Ivan Hunter, who officials said fired 13 shots from an AK-47 type rifle into a Minneapolis police station overrun and set on fire by Black Lives Matter protesters the night of May 28. The protests erupted following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Federal officials say Hunter, 26, is a member of the Boogaloo Bois, a loosely organized anti-government group that includes members who want to start a race war.

Ballot by mail hand delivery clerk Mark Garcia deposits a ballot in the ballot box at a drive-through ballot drop-off location at the Travis County Tax Office in Texas on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.

“We’re looking at one of the most profound civil rights movements this country has seen in 50 years and the president of the United States is conflating the Black Lives Movement with politically motivated violence,” says Brian Griffey, an Amnesty International regional researcher and adviser who has worked in Ukraine, Nepal and Kosovo. “Trump himself called Portland worse than Afghanistan. The level of which they’ve been trying to throw fuel on the fire and exacerbate conflicts is incredibly concerning.”

A protester inspects the torn-down fence outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., in the early morning of July 26, 2020.

All summer, Americans have been bombarded with images of armored riot police clashing with protesters, piling out of armored vehicles with batons and tear gar launchers, and dragging detainees into custody. People see those images and worry that will happen in their neighborhood.

While many people are making plans to hunker down in their homes, others are fleeing. Many super-wealthy people from New York, Chicago and Miami have snapped up property in remote areas of Montana or Wyoming or in Aspen, Colorado, long known as a haven for the rich. While many of those moves by wealthy people who can work remotely were planned before the election, the potential for violence has sharpened concerns.

Protesters raise signs outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., in the early morning of July 26, 2020.

Sales in the Aspen area have already topped $2 billion for the year.  New York City has lost a lot of its luster for rich Americans, who no longer can eat out or go to Broadway shows, and, with the population density, some are deciding it would be both better and safer to put it all behind them, at least temporarily.

Other escapists have a more grim view of the potential problems following the election, which could include massive coronavirus outbreaks as fall deepens. While few predict a widespread breakdown of society, a small number of survivalists have joined a collective of “hardened” lodges scattered around the country known as Fortitude Ranch.

Members are allowed to come in advance, says CEO Drew Miller, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, who predicts as many as 25% of his approximately 400 members will be staying at the three sites on Election Day. Miller expects scattered violence around the country — “emotional, irrational violence and opportunistic looting by bad people” — rather than any sort of organized violence.

“Hopefully, it will be limited and controlled, but it could, unfortunately, devolve into long term, widespread clashes; some even fear civil war,” he says.