Political and Election Violence

The ElectionSOS Fellows joined a conversation with Professor Nealin Parker, of Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative, and Mary McCord, Legal Director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown Law to learn more about election and political violence. Our fellows and experts discussed best practices for covering and tracking incidents of political violence, as well as the illegality of paramilitary organizations and how to convey such complex issues to audiences.

Key Takeaways:

  • Political violence in the U.S. is not new. One could theoretically frame the Civil War as political violence, to say nothing of lynchings in the Jim Crow era.
  • Currently, the U.S. government does not track political violence. Counts of incidents of political violence come from using proxies, such as hate crimes.
  • In the current context, political violence can be organized according to the following framework:
    • Violence at protests (either by protesters, by counter-protesters, by non-affiliated people just at the protest)
    • Official state violence (for example use by federal agents or local police of rubberized bullets or tear gas)
    • Targeted violence and activities of unlawful militias (this includes car rammings, the shootings in Kenosha, etc).
  • Militias/private paramilitary organizations have no right to self-deploy under federal or state law
    • For commentators who argue that the right to bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment, remind them that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to bear arms, and that this precision was upheld as early as 1886 in a precedential Supreme Court decision banning private militias and has been reaffirmed in Supreme Court decisions to the present day.
    • All 50 states have laws prohibiting private paramilitary organizations.
    • 25 states additionally have anti-paramilitary statutes.
    • An additional dozen states have statutes against falsely assuming the function of law enforcement (not impersonating police, but exercising their functions).

What Can Journalists Do?

  • Journalists should always report on the denominator of how many protests there are to contextualize what a small percentage are violent.

Journalists should watch for potential violence during three key phases:

  • Pre-election violence is typically precipitated by campaign rallies. Right now, because of COVID, there is less of this activity. You typically also see an increase in violence targeting specific groups, like journalists or racial/ethnic minorities during this time.
    • Journalists can help prevent violence now by normalizing expectations of the vote count, reporting on the whole picture of the election, and complicating the narrative.
  • Election Day violence is actually less common. Look for violence at campaign headquarters and polling stations.
    • Journalists should quickly dispel misinformation during this crucial time.
    • Journalists can also mitigate a different kind of violence—attacks on our electoral process—by not only reporting negative incidents but also covering all of the successful elections they see.
  • The period for counting, results, and the transfer of power is the one most fraught with uncertainty and therefore the most potentially violent.
    • Journalists should contextualize legal challenges to results by explaining that they are routinely a part of the electoral process.
    • Journalists should explain thoroughly and report on the electoral process to underscore the integrity of the election.
    • Journalists should also report on leaders spreading a message of unity to counteract reporting that sows further discord.

Next Steps: