How California Officials Are Prepping for Potential Election Unrest

4 min
A voter slides her ballot for the 2020 presidential election into an official ballot drop box at the Los Angeles County Registrar in Norwalk, California on Oct. 19, 2020. (Frederic J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

With the last day to vote less than two weeks away, tensions are running high around the country. In California, state election and emergency officials, as well as voting-rights groups, are working hard to reassure people they’ll be able to cast their votes safely and securely.

And they’re also making preparations — just in case there’s voter intimidation or civic unrest.

We took a look at how they're getting ready.

Office of Emergency Services

California officials haven't heard of any specific threats targeting the state, according to Mark Ghilarducci, who directs the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

"Right now it's mostly just a lot of chatter or rhetoric, things in the news that we've all seen about the potential for some of this stuff," he said. "Some of it's, quite frankly, speculation."

But in anticipation that something could happen, the state last year put together an election security task force that includes local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, the secretary of state's office and local election officials.

The state regularly prepares for major events, like the Super Bowl or a big political convention. But Ghilarducci said officials have never prepared for an election as extensively as they are this time around.

And, he said, they started planning much earlier than they did for previous elections, including how to handle any potential cyberattacks.

"Our California Cybersecurity Integration Center is critical in being able to assess all of the different election sites that ensure that if there's any breaches or gaps that we get on top of that, we put the patches in place," he said. "They've been working at that over the last year plus.”

The necessity of cybersecurity was underscored just this week when John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, announced that Iranian and Russian operatives were behind threatening emails sent to voters in Florida and Alaska.

As with many political events, Ghilarducci said he expects there to be some protests and marches on and leading up to Election Day, and stresses that people are allowed to gather and express their opinions peacefully.

"We're focusing in on violence or illegal activity that would result in harm to person or property. Vandalism, looting, this kind of thing," he said. "We've been working closely with our law enforcement partners throughout the state and just making sure that fine line of self-expression doesn't get impacted by law enforcement overall."

California Secretary of State

It’s important to remember that voter intimidation is strictly illegal. The secretary of state’s office recently issued guidance to local election officials reminding them of the relevant laws. For instance, it’s illegal for anyone to block access to polling stations or threaten and harass voters. Guns are also prohibited near voting locations.

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"Do not let the rhetoric coming from the campaign discourage you from casting your vote. You have the right to cast your vote free from intimidation," said Sam Mahood, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office. "Poll workers, county election officials, the secretary of state's office are all in coordination. We're going to be in communication throughout Election Day and the early voting period to ensure that voters have a smooth, safe experience."

Additionally, Mahood said voters should have confidence their ballots will make it safely to election offices and be counted correctly.

"The vote-count process is another transparent part of our democracy here in California," he said. "Elections officials will inform the public when they are counting votes. We'll be releasing vote count tallies after the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Night.

However, Mahood cautioned, voters will need to be patient for a final ballot count in what's expected to be a very high turnout election.

He also pointed out there was a lot of similar rhetoric and concern around the 2016 election. But the voting process in California ran smoothly then, and he expects the same this year.

Possibility of Violence

A recent report on the potential involvement of right-wing militia groups in the upcoming election placed California at moderate risk for increased militia activity on and after Election Day.

According to the analysis, produced by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and MilitiaWatch, there are a number of active militia groups dispersed throughout California, including the Boogaloo Bois, who are especially active in the Bay Area.

"In addition to demonstrations, the Boogaloo Bois have also engaged in armed clashes with law enforcement, in line with their stated agenda of police opposition," the report states.

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"We're leveraging our state threat assessment system and working with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI in trying to get situational awareness on the front end of any potential events," said OES director Ghilarducci. "And from that, being able to share that information appropriately with local authorities and or with the election officials."

Interest Groups

There are also a lot of private organizations preparing for the election. Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan voter rights organization, said his group is placing between 500 and 600 trained volunteer poll monitors at about 1,500 voting sites across Southern California.

A number of other groups in Northern California and the Central Valley are doing the same thing, he said.

"The purpose of this work is to make sure that every eligible voter is able to cast their ballots free of barriers or intimidation,” he said.

While members of his organization have not yet heard of any specific threats targeted at California, Mehta Stein said they still feel the need to be prepared given President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the election.

"In 2016, President Trump, then-candidate Trump, talked about how the election was going to be rigged and encouraged his supporters to act as voting police at the polls," he said, noting that while that never actually happened, Trump has made similar pronouncements this year.

"We don't know what that will manifest in on Election Day, but we want to be as prepared as possible for the possibility that people follow his directions and try to be sort of vigilantes at Californian's voting sites," he said.

Mehta Stein also reiterated that, given the expected high turnout and huge number of mail-in ballots, it will likely take several weeks to count all the votes.

“We need people to understand that if it takes days or weeks to count ballots, that is a sign that we are doing everything we can to count every eligible vote," he said. "It is not a sign of fraud or manipulation. It is democracy working. It is not a sign that democracy is broken.”

California Common Cause, along with other groups like the ACLU, will also be ready to file lawsuits should there be any disruptions to voting, he added.

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