US election: Armed groups prepare for violence in swing state of Pennsylvania

When Justin Dillon heads to a polling station in Erie, Pennsylvania, to cast his ballot on November 3, he plans to be armed with a handgun and on the watch for any foul play.

In Pennsylvania, voters are allowed to carry weapons into the polling booth and it is a right that Dillon, the founder of a gun rights group, and his friends plan to use.

“We’re going to show our right to vote and also to openly carry [weapons],” he says. “It’s a dual purpose what we’re doing; we’re voting for our 2nd Amendment [the right to bear arms].”

As well as casting their votes on election day, Dillon says his group, Open Carry Pennsylvania, will have members observing polling stations across Erie County and beyond because of their concerns over potential interference in the voting process.

“We’re going to be on standby. We’ll be around the areas at the voting stations just in case something happens,” he said, stressing they only plan to mobilise as a last resort, and in cooperation with law enforcement.

“We want to make sure that when people are going to vote they’re doing it safely and there’s no interference with the election. That’s our only concern,” he said.

Dillon says his fears for potential violence were aroused in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, and the “agitators” they attracted.

He also points to what he believes is malicious interference in the electoral process. “We already know mail ballots are being found in dumpsters, mail officials are being charged for fraudulent activity with their mail,” he says, adding that these incidents will only increase given the high number of postal votes being cast this year.

His gun advocacy group has been steadfastly preparing for election day. They have run training drills, where armed units mobilise to role play scenarios such as the looting of a polling station.

Dillon denies that his gun organisation is a militia, insisting he views his role as keeping the peace, adding that the group have consulted lawyers to ensure any action they feel compelled to take on November 3 stays within the confines of the law.

Dillon claims to have between 2000 and 3000 members who are prepared to mobilise in the event of any unrest.

It is just one of the concerning developments in this year’s election campaign. Similar scenes are playing out across America, leaving a country bracing for chaos.

The potential for disruption ranges from peaceful protests to more sinister, vigilante-style activity. In a recent report, the research group MilitiaWatch warned in particular that the risk of political violence around Election Day by vigilantes or militia-style groups was on the rise.

The report identified Pennsylvania as one of five states, along with Wisconsin, Michigan, Portland and Georgia, at greatest risk of increased militia activity.

Further fuelling concerns is the staggering increase in gun sales this year. Americans bought 15.1 million guns between March and the end of September – a 91 per cent rise on the same period last year – according to The Trace, a non-profit which tracks firearms sales.

Meanwhile Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, has pulled gun and ammunition displays from thousands of its stores, citing concerns of “civil unrest.”

Nowhere is this febrile atmosphere more evident than in Erie, a key battleground county in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania.

Pundits view this area as a bellwether for whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania and its crucial 20 electoral college votes.

Both candidates have visited Erie in the last few weeks, with polls showing a tight race in a manufacturing community that was once a Democratic stronghold.

But as well as being bombarded by the party campaigns, residents have also been the subject of voter intimidation tactics. Last month, a Ku Klux Klan group dropped threatening flyers at the homes of Biden-supporting residents in the county.

Other flyers, from anonymous senders, contained racist, homophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic language targeting Democrats and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“They’re just out trying to create tension and fear in voters and some of them are just trying to intimidate people into voting for Donald Trump,” says Jim Wertz, the Erie County Democratic Party chair.

Wertz says the party has taken measures to ensure voters’ safety, with poll watchers stationed inside each polling place and “observers” scheduled to be outside most locations, “particularly the ones where we have significant concerns”.

“We don’t know what to expect,” he says. “We’re planning for anything.”

With tensions rising, this week the county’s board of elections put forward a resolution seeking to ban armed groups from gathering near polling places. But legal experts say it is highly unlikely the resolution can be enforced given the state’s strong pro-gun laws.

The potential presence of armed groups outside polling stations remains a keen topic of discussion among voters in the town.

“I don’t think that we should put anything past [them],” says Anne Stephens, a 65-year-old retiree. Her husband, Ron, a photographer, believes there will be unrest irrespective of the election result. “It’s a lose-lose,” he says. “If the right wins, they’re going to go balls to the walls with everything. If the left wins, it’s going to be total ‘we’re going after the left now’.”

David Lawrence, who runs the county Republican Party’s headquarters, agrees that “both sides are fired up and more passionate than usual”, but believes there is no need for alarm.

Lawrence says that many locals are likely to carry weapons to the polls this year, but added: “Most of them will be good people, they’re not going to start anything.”

How soon the result will be known is yet another cause for concern. Pennsylvania law prohibits mail-in ballots being counted before election day, and with record numbers of people voting by post this year, the result may not be declared for several days. Local residents fear a delay in the result could increase the possibility of protests or violence.

Both Democratic and Republican party figures also harbour deep suspicions that the other side will attempt to influence the result. The two parties will have an army of poll watchers and lawyers to monitor the ballots as they are counted.

“Democrats are not in the business of challenging votes,” says Wertz, the party chair. “But the other side is more inclined to try to challenge those votes and have them set aside. So our folks in that room are there to offer a defence.”

Lawrence, from the local Republican party, was equally distrusting of his Democratic counterparts. “If there’s going to be any cheating going on it’s going to be the Democrats,” he said. “We’ve got an enemy in [Democrat] Governor Tom Wolf. He’s going to pull all the stops to prevent Trump winning Pennsylvania.”

In the midst of such political polarisation, Erie county appears to be a tinderbox which could ignite at any moment.

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