armed men at the polls

The summer months were unrelenting for John Clair, a police chief in rural Virginia.

Clair’s normally sleepy town of Marion was the site of two Black Lives Matter protests where heavily armed militia members showed up in droves, alongside other counter-demonstrators, and engaged in tense standoffs with protesters.

“People would call me up and ask how I’m doing,” Clair recalled. “And what I’d say is I’m dealing with the most complex leadership challenge of my career in the midst of the most widespread social crisis in 100 years. But other than that, I’m doing okay.”

Clair is now grappling with a different kind of leadership challenge: election day.

He’s spent the past several weeks trying to figure out how to provide security at the polls amid the threat of armed troublemakers without scaring away the kind of voters who might be put off by the sight of uniformed policemen.

“I feel like I’m walking on the edge of a razor blade,” Clair said in an interview.

Lori Haynes, left, argues with a New Panthers member during the Black Lives Matter Protest in Marion, Va. on July 3, 2020.Earl Neikirk / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The 2020 election is taking place against a backdrop of extreme partisan rancor and social unrest, placing unprecedented strain on the police chiefs and sheriffs responsible for maintaining order at the polls.

The situation is compounded by the increasing threat of right-wing militia groups and a president who has called for an “army” of poll watchers to monitor contested election areas.

In recent weeks, President Trump has cast doubt about the integrity of the election and repeatedly refused to say that he’d accept the results. Federal authorities, meanwhile, disrupted an alleged militia plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and target a second Democratic governor, Ralph Northam of Virginia.

In interviews with NBC News, more than a half dozen law enforcement officials across the country described their preparations for safeguarding the polls and their lingering concerns ahead of election day.

“There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not up late envisioning what the worst case scenario is to make sure that we are able to prevent it,” said Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock.

Trump singled out Philadelphia in last month’s presidential debate, urging his supporters to go to the polls and “watch very carefully.”

The district attorney’s office had by then already made plans to beef up its task force dedicated to election security. The unit, which consists of roughly 60 prosecutors and 30 detectives, is now focused in part on combating the threat of voter suppression and protecting polling stations from potential instigators.

Pennsylvania has among the most lenient gun laws in the Northeast. Residents can “open carry” a firearm everywhere except in Philadelphia where a permit is required.

Wellbrook said the authorities are prepared to take swift action against anyone who threatens to menace voters.

“Marching back and forth in front of a polling place with a gun is a pretty easy example of felony election intimidation,” he said. “There is no legitimate lawful purpose to be doing that.”

But the situation is more complicated in places like Michigan.

State law prohibits anyone from carrying a firearm within 100 yards of a polling station. But what if armed men walk up and down a line of voters but stay beyond the 100 yard limit?

“It’s a really tricky line,” said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Chiefs of Police Association.

Members of a militia group stand near the doors to the chamber in the capitol building before the vote on the extension of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration/stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Lansing, Michigan, on April 30, 2020.Seth Herald / Reuters

Grand Blanc Township Police Chief Ron Wiles said a 2018 state supreme court decision on the issue of guns in schools further complicates the picture for law enforcement. The ruling gave school districts the ability to set their own policies on possessing guns on school grounds, which raises a vexing question for Michigan police officials.

“On election day, is it a school or polling station?” Wiles said. “It’s a whole other layer of complexity.”

Michigan’s secretary of state issued a directive Friday that prohibits carrying firearms into any polling station – including at schools — but Wiles said he expects the matter to ultimately be decided by the courts in the coming weeks.

The threat militia groups pose in states like Michigan is no longer theoretical.

Earlier this month, 13 men linked to two militia groups were arrested on federal and state charges in connection with the alleged foiled plot to kidnap Whitmer, Michigan’s governor.

The charges were brought six months after armed protesters, including some militia members,

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