Picture this. It’s November 3rd, Anytown USA. Or, if we’re not lucky, Everytown. The high school gym is full of voting machines, touchscreen for the most part. The masked and gloved volunteers have coffee and donuts, donated by moms whose kids now rehearse pandemic protocols along with their active shooter drills. The donuts have red, white, and blue sprinkles. There’s a special room where you can eat them, but everyone just lifts their mask up, changes gloves after. Almost everyone.
At 8am, polls will open. On the sidewalk outside, chalk marks stretch down the block, six feet apart. The air is crisp with autumn chill. There are still Halloween decorations on some of the houses, and the jack-o-lanterns are starting to sag. Candy wrappers turned inside out can be seen among the red and gold and brown of leaves just begun to rot in the gutters. So far the sky is clear, but the weatherman says storm’s a-coming.
By 7:30 early voters have begun to line up. Some of them like voting in person. Others just don’t trust the post office since the layoffs and budget cuts last month. They take their marks, chatting with neighbors or playing with their phones. Since the second spike, everyone wears a mask.
At 7:58 a cargo van pulls up and parks. Six men get out, who are also wearing masks, along with Kevlar vests, sunglasses, and AR-15s. Four have sidearms in holsters clipped to their belts. All six are white. They have armbands with American flags rendered in black and white and the words Election Security printed below. They line up across from the front of the line to get into the polling station, where they have a clear line of sight.
“Attention citizens!” says the leader, a bearded man of late middle age. He wears a ballcap from the Navy ship his father served on. “We are here to observe this polling station and make sure no voter fraud takes place! This is a peaceful action, and no lawful citizen exercising his rights is in danger!”
Phones are by ears now, as voters call 911 en masse. Harried operators and units available to respond are overwhelmed. This isn’t the only polling station where this is happening. This is a widespread, if uncoordinated effort, one telegraphed for weeks in the press and on the internet, but that has yet caught law enforcement and the media flat-footed come the day, because America is not the kind of place where things like this happen.
But it is now, and maybe it always was.
Let’s get something straight before we go any further. The moment Donald Trump is no longer President, he will be indicted, arrested, and taken to jail. However far down the memory hole it’s fallen, the Mueller report by itself lays out a case in painstaking detail — the only reason it did not take the step of recommending prosecution is because of the Justice Department policy of not prosecuting a sitting President. Even if a Biden Justice Department were to reprise Obama’s mistake in not investigating and prosecuting his predecessor (Remember W’s war crimes? Good times), the state of New York is ready to go with racketeering and fraud and corrupt organization charges. Trump knows it, too. It drives every decision he makes.He’ll die in office or he’ll die in prison. And since he doesn’t care about anyone else in the world besides himself, he’ll do whatever it takes, up to and including inciting civic violence and unrest, to stay in office. No hesitation, no compunction. Hell, no forethought, even. His party has already started accepting and training volunteer poll watchers. If/when they decide to arm themselves, the party will throw up its hands and claim plausible deniability, and by the time the dust settles the election will be over and called.
And let’s face it. There’s a small but hardcore segment of the population that’s just dying to get out there and intimidate their fellow Americans with their long guns and body armor. Some of them got a taste for it in Iraq or Afghanistan, some in law enforcement. Some of them are just concerned about the oppression white men and Christians face in these disturbingly diverse, increasingly dis-United States. At least a few just really want to shoot somebody.
What they all want is to bring America back to its roots, its foundation. Its fundamental state, if you will. In which only white men can vote, and everyone else remembers their place and stays in it. They might even, through the private prison industry, reprise something like slavery. How else are we supposed to compete with cheap labor from China?
First, though, they have to cement their lock on power. They have to suppress enough votes to carry one more election. If they can do that, they can lock down the courts and gerrymander districts for another decade after the Census, and secure the White Christian Man at the top of the food chain for the rest of history. Which won’t be long, because these jokers are going to handle climate change about as well as they’ve handled Coronavirus, in that they’ll actively make it worse and a lot of people and species will die unnecessarily as a result.
But they don’t believe in climate change, or they don’t care, or they just can’t see how it matters if it’s not them and theirs on top of shit mountain, watching their turds tumble down on those who God loves a little less.
Do I really think people will show up with guns to intimidate voters? Who the fuck knows in this crazy crap-shoot world? But I know the GOP has been willing to engage in wholesale voter roll purges, and make it super-hard for the wrong voters to register, and draw gerrymandered districts that should be prosecuted as crimes against geometry and that strain even partisan credulousness in their purpose-built geographic contortions. I know the Presdent’s son-in-law, de facto chief of staff, and fellow overprivileged incompetent failure Jared Kushner has already floated the idea of delaying the November election.
I also know that somewhere around 40% of Americans are on board for all of it, the demographic rump of white Christian Americans who like the way things used to be and love Trump for the fact of his unapologetic entitlement and privilege, which permits them to really let their freak flag fly in public. Between their aggrievement and gun collections and the Trump mafia’s legal jeopardy the second they’re voted out of power (when, mark my words, the Republicans who endorsed and enabled them will forget they ever knew such vulgar buffoons and get on to squawking about the deficit again), I think it makes it likelier than not that at least some places we see armed vigilantes like the ones I’ve described up above.
For the record, I’d love to be wrong about this.
So what happens when the armbands show up, the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries and irregulars in an undeclared war, men with guns and body armor and the unshakeable conviction of their own rightness? What are we going to do?
If all we’re relying on is the courage of individual voters then we’re doing a disservice to democracy, our country, and our chance of hauling this timeline back on the rails, of bending the arc of history back a little more toward justice and maybe saving some of the ecosphere for our descendents, who are going to judge the living shit out of us and have every right to do so.
Back to our hypothetical polling station, where the chill in the air has more to do with the presence of self-appointed poll-watchers kitted out for urban warfare than the time of year and tilt of Earth on its axis. What kind of response are we hoping for? Should we try and field counter-paramilitaries? Try the good guy with a gun thing? Doesn’t that make us like them? Would it even work?
Maybe we should just call the cops and hope for the best. Of course, the same elements ready to drag us back in time at gunpoint have spent the last couple decades infiltrating law enforcement. Either way, it’s not like the cops have been doing much when the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries show up to protest at state capitols. I don’t think we can count on them, and I sure as fuck wouldn’t recommend it to voters of color.
So what, then?
It’s 8:04 when six bikes pull up. The riders are masked for pandemic protection, but instead of guns they’ve got cameras. They take pictures of the armed vigilantes — in homes across the country, activists and internet sleuths work to identify them and publish their names when they get a match. Other riders have cameras that upload video straight to the cloud. The armbands still have the guns, but now they know the world is watching. There’ll be a record of anything they do or say tagged to their identity.
Will these Recording Angels stop the men with guns? Hard to say. But people are a lot less likely to commit crimes and atrocities when they know other people are watching. And when individuals are identified, and the consequences of their actions can be correctly assigned, they become a whole lot less likely to go all Kristallnacht on a polling place. Accountability is a hell of a thing.
In the story I’m telling, the vigilantes lose their nerve pretty quick. Because their power only derives from their guns, and despite that tingle in your balls you get when you pick up a loaded firearm, the power it gives you is entirely situational and not as great or wide-ranging as you might think. The six load up in their cargo van, and democracy carries on.
The election is decided by voters and not men with guns and a bunch of privilege and inequality to protect at the expense of everyone else and the planet we live on. It’s as happy an ending as we’re likely to get these fucking days.
One last thing: if we don’t want the above scenario to play out — if we don’t want paramilitary vigilantes showing up at polling places for the purpose of voter intimidation in the guise of election security — then we’d better have our response prepared in advance. Volunteers, money, some degree of coordination, the technical infrastructure built in advance. Just like we know they plan to come loaded for bear, we need them to know we plan to come loaded for democracy.
I’m willing to bet if they know we’re serious, they won’t even show up. They are, many of them, cowards after all. That’s why they have to carry their guns in public in the first place.