2020 election: Battleground of Michigan set to vote amid anxiety and fear of election day intimidation and violence

Andrew Buncombe
·5-min read
Boogaloo Bois held a rally at the state capitol three weeks before election (Getty)
Boogaloo Bois held a rally at the state capitol three weeks before election (Getty)

David Brandon was heading to drop off his ballot slip but he was not doing so with a smile on his face.

“It’s insane that it’s gotten to this,” said the 56-year-old, stepping out of the wind whipping through the centre of Lansing, the capital of Michigan. “I feel like this is the start of what could be another another Nazi regime.”

He added: “Trump is trying to reverse all the rights that people who are not white men enjoy. A Trump world is one where white men rule.”

Asked whether he feared intimidation or violence when the state - and the nation - votes on Tuesday, he replied: “Unfortunately, it's a good possibility. I just hope the state police do their job.”

As alarming as Mr Aaron’s words were, he was not the only person to feel this way. A recent poll published by The Detroit News found 72 per cent of people were worried about post-election violence. It said 64 per cent were concerned about foreign interference.

<p>David Brandon said he was supporting Joe Biden</p>Andrew Buncombe

David Brandon said he was supporting Joe Biden

Andrew Buncombe

Meanwhile, a report in the Detroit Free Press said election officials had “deep concern” about both election day violence, and the threat of spreading Covid-19.

There are few places more important in the 2020 election than Michigan. In 2016, it was one of three states in the upper midwest, the other two being Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that Donald Trump flipped on his way to victory. Yet, it was in Michigan, with its 16 electoral votes, that Mr Trump won by the most narrow of margins, bettering Hillary Clinton by less than 11,000 votes.

This time, it appears Mr Trump is having a tougher challenge from Joe Biden. An average of polls collated by RealClearPolitics gives the the Democrat a lead of 6.5 points.

In the race for a US senate seat that is also taking place, the site gives Democrat Gary Peters a lead of 7.5 points over his challenger, Republican John James.

The anxiety about election day violence has been fuelled in large part by the very public display of intimidation by armed militia, made up of white men, who stormed into the centre of Lansing earlier this spring, occupied part of the legislature building and shut down traffic.

The protest was organised as a show of force against Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer, and was actively encouraged by the president, who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”

Since the incident in April, which was purportedly held to protest the governor’s firm coronavirus restrictions, imposed as infections here soared, Mr Trump has continued to attack Mr Whitmer, and has smiled as supporters at his rallies here have chanted “lock her up”, reprising the words once directed at Ms Clinton.

Mr Trump has continued to do so, ever after the FBI revealed a militia group known as the Wolverine Watchmen, had hatched a plot to kidnap the governor. Around a dozen men have been arrested.

Ms Whitmer has accused Mr Trump of inspiring “domestic terrorism”.

“It's incredibly disturbing that the president of the United States,” she told NBC News after one such rally. “…10 days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial and execute me — 10 days after that was uncovered — the president is at it again and inspiring and incentivising and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism.”

Walker Stanley, who was also walking close to the capitol budding where the militias had gathered, said he did not think there was a strong possibility of intimidation in Lansing itself. But he added: “It could happen here if they come in to try and cause trouble.”

As recently as two weeks ago, a group tied to the so-called Boogaloo Bois held a rally at the state capitol in Lansing, where they were legally allowed to carry their guns, but not political campaign signs.

Former Democratic congressman Bart Stupak, who held Michigan’s 1st congressional district from 1993 to 2011, even though it is located in what is typically a Republican stronghold, told The Independent he believed both Mr Biden and Mr Peters were going to win.

“There's much more enthusiasm. There's much more [election campaign] signs. I mean, for Hillary, you couldn't find a sign four years ago,” he said, speaking of northern Michigan. “There's a lot of Biden signs. They got out late, but they finally started to come in, and they’re doing really well.”

Adding to the heated atmosphere was a recent decision by the Michigan court of appeals which ruled people who were legally registered to carry a gun openly had the right to take them to the polling booth.

Asked about the possibility of intimidation or violence in the state, which has the fifth largest number of firearms per capita, he said: “I'm concerned that people will show up who have a right to carry a gun, and will be out there openly carrying their gun, and that is a form of intimidation. There is no reason to bring a gun to a polling place.”

It is not just Democrats who fear violence on election day.

A 70-year-old woman called Judy, who was leaving a supermarket in East Lansing, said she was voting for Mr Trump. She said: “I fear the other side will causing problems … I fear there is going to be a race war.”

A 20-year-old student, Trace Rinke, who said he was undecided who to vote for, said it was possible both sides could cause problems, yet he said he hoped they did not.

Oke Agahro, who works in communications, said she did think there would be any problems, and blamed the media for stoking such concerns. “I think our democracy is pretty strong,” said the 46-year-old who said she had voted for Mr Biden, based “on his policies”.

As many as 2.6m people in the state have already voted early.

For her part, Ms Whitmer has vowed to ensure the election goes off smoothly.

“Let me be clear: all Michiganders have the right to vote without fear of intimidation or violence,” she said at a press conference this week responding to the threats of violence, intimidation or video-taping people as they vote.

She added: “Voter intimidation is illegal.”

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