As America’s Election Day approached, conflict experts warned about the potential for violence, businesses in major cities boarded up windows, and law enforcement agencies around the country prepared for unrest. Despite these ominous signs, Election Day—and the subsequent days of uncertainty before Joe Biden was projected as the winner—passed without any major incidents of violence or other disruptions. Major news outlets cited this outcome as evidence of the resilience of American institutions, and some political scientists suggested their colleagues had been “too pessimistic” about the election and American democracy more generally.
As scholars of political violence and regime transition, we caution against these overly optimistic interpretations. While the United States successfully avoided major disruptions on Election Day and large-scale civil war is unlikely, we remain concerned about the potential for “non-state conflict,” both during the transition and for the foreseeable future, as well as democratic backsliding more generally.
Non-state conflict, which has occurred before, during, and after disputed elections in other settings, such as Kenya and Bangladesh, involves armed conflict between groups not directly affiliated with the national government, often employing insurgent tactics. While there are important differences between the United States and settings where non-state conflict has occurred, there have already been incidents of election-related, non-state violence in the US, including clashes in the streets of Washington, DC following pro-Trump demonstrations and counter-protests on November 15. There have also been several “near-misses” where violence by non-state groups was propitiously avoided, most notably the thwarted pre-election plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and potentially the arrest of two armed men near the Pennsylvania Convention Center during competing protests while vote counting was ongoing.
We are concerned about the potential for further escalation of non-state violence because, while Election Day passed relatively peacefully, the risk factors for such violence remain present, beginning with high levels of partisan polarization and overlapping racial and ethnic tensions. The United States also remains a heavily armed society, with nearly 400 million guns in circulation even before a recent surge in sales, and an extensive right-wing, non-state militia movement whose presence and activities intensified before the election; these militias pose a particular risk, as many pre-existed the Trump administration and are not connected by any centralized command structure, increasing the potential for election-related violence to escalate into more prolonged non-state conflict. Perhaps most alarmingly, the founder of the largest militia, the right-wing Oath Keepers, declared that his organization would not recognize but instead resist the Biden administration’s authority.
The United States’ decentralized electoral institutions and its extended electoral calendar also increase the opportunities for escalation. Research on electoral violence shows that timing is important: violence before or during an election can influence voting, while post-electoral violence can influence counting. Such “moments” include the state certification dates for the hotly contested states of Arizona (November 30), Georgia (November 20), Michigan (November 23), North Carolina (November 24), Pennsylvania (November 23), and Wisconsin (December 1). The state certifications will be followed by key dates like the actual vote by the Electoral College on December 14 and the counting of electoral votes in a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate on January 6, 2021.
In this volatile context, with multiple risk factors and opportunities for escalation, political and media elites have propagated unsubstantiated claims of widespread electoral fraud. These elites include President Trump himself, who has repeatedly refused to concede, tweeted claims that the election was “rigged,” and declared himself the winner, while pursuing increasingly “long-shot” legal challenges. Other Republican elites, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have either supported, or declined to refute, the president’s claims of fraud. More broadly, as of publication, less than 10 percent of senior elected Republicans, including senators, House members, and governors had acknowledged Biden as the president-elect.
A recent study shows that continued attacks on the legitimacy of electoral institutions by President Trump and his allies reduces his supporters’ trust that elections were conducted freely and fairly. Though the study does not find any links between such loss of confidence in elections and preference for political violence or rejection of democracy, it indicates that a shared norm critical for democratic stability is declining. This insight was further evidenced when the Trump campaign released reports on November 10 from its poll watchers in Detroit: most complaints confused regular vote processing and even the observers’ suspicions with actual electoral irregularities.
The escalation by political leaders and senior members of the Trump administration has also led to fissures within state institutions that can inadvertently escalate tensions. In terms of state capacity and willingness, Attorney General Bill Barr’s authorization of investigations into alleged electoral fraud has created divisions within the Department of Justice. The director of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division’s Election Crime Branch, Richard Pilger, resigned from his position in protest. Also, a group of federal prosecutors have urged AG Barr to rescind his order encouraging prosecutors across the country to open probes into even weak allegations of electoral fraud. More importantly, such rhetoric has increased distrust in the electoral process on partisan lines. According to a post-electoral survey, 7 in 10 registered Republican voters believe that the 2020 election was not free and fair, while overall trust in elections has also declined.
The above evidence suggests that the motivations of actors supporting claims about electoral fraud is largely irrelevant, as is the seeming lack of credibility or evidence for these claims. Rather, in a highly polarized and armed society with multiple risk factors present, there is now a non-negligible risk of further escalation.
Even so, further violence is not inevitable, and there are numerous factors which may mitigate the risk of violence. Most importantly, that includes state capacity and willingness to deter and stop potentially violent actors and groups. There is also willingness among some elites in the Republican party—most notably President George W. Bush, Senators Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins—to recognize the legitimacy of the presidential election. Finally, with a few exceptions such as Presidents Putin of Russia, Bolsonaro of Brazil, and López Obrador of Mexico, most world leaders have also accepted the results of the elections, and congratulated Joe Biden, thus indicating that post-electoral violence could entail reputational costs to America’s claim of acting as a peaceful and stable democracy in the international arena.
Nevertheless, if American political elites continue attacking the electoral process as rigged, and consequently public confidence in elections continues declining, while state institutions continue fracturing, there may be ample opportunities over time and across locations for the appearance of non-state conflict.
[Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in Kyle Murphy’s, An Analytic Framework for Assessing Risks of U.S. Post-Election Violence, Nov. 3, 2020]