Sofia is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. I’ve never met her but have the pleasure of working with her mother, Elisabeth Mitchell, who put us in touch. As uncomfortable as it is to look directly at the very real possibility of violence around the election, it makes me more uncomfortable to assume that, should it happen, someone else will take care of it. We are all responsible. This is our country.
A Peaceful Transition? Observations and Suggestions for Action
by Sofia Fenner, Colorado Springs, Colorado
President Trump has now twice refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. It is too late for structural solutions to save us. The pandemic will not be under control in a month; the Post Office will not be back to its prior capacity; we are not getting a new Voting Rights Act; there will not be any new gun control laws. Any change that happens in the next month will happen because of the aggregate effect of individual behaviors, both coordinated and not.If you are feeling useless or powerless, remember that elections are the sum of countless irrational decisions: no one person’s vote makes a difference, but we all have to act as though it does.
A “peaceful transfer of power” can mean two things: the absence of state-on-civilian violence and the absence of civilian-on-civilian violence. Take heart in the fact that state-on-civilian violence (that perpetrated by federal agencies like the military, not local police departments) is unlikely: over the past few months, the U.S. military has made it very clear that they are uninterested in serving as Trump’s personal protection force. Civil violence, however, is another matter. This is not a country with a history of military coups; it is a country with a history of vigilante violence. Evidence from around the world suggests a link between elections and civil, often racially- or ethnically-motivated violence.* We are already seeing this happen: in Portland, in Kenosha. It is what Trump is talking about when he tells the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” In the wake of the election, it is entirely possible that members of marginalized communities will become the softest of soft targets.
So, what can we do?
If you can, make sure your vote gets counted on Election Day. In most states, this means voting in person. The Trump administration is already making noises about not counting ballots that come in after Election Day, throwing us into a long, uncertain judicial battle that will only exacerbate tensions. The best way to avoid this scenario is to hand him a clear loss on election night itself—and in most states, in-person ballots are counted before absentee ones. Moreover, voting in person allows you to share photos from polling places, monitor for intimidation, and alert volunteers to the needs of voters in long lines. If you live in a vote-by-mail state (or must vote by mail), turn your ballot in early and use a dropbox if you can.
If you can, volunteer to be a poll worker. We need to get as many votes in as possible and as many votes in on Election Day as possible. This will not happen if the shortage of poll workers continues. If you cannot be a poll worker, help those who can by donating high-quality PPE, helping with childcare, or just providing emotional support.
White folks and others who can, start thinking now about how you will protect community members who may be victims of violence after the election. Offer to pick up groceries or run errands if families feel safer sheltering at home. Offer your guest room, futon, or sleeping bag to others if the situation gets bad. If you own firearms, connect with other like-minded folks who do and think seriously about how to protect others without escalating the situation. If you own Kevlar or other protective equipment, loan it to someone who needs it more than you do. If non-violence is more your style, reach out to others and start thinking about human chains, human shields, and other similar actions. Don’t fight about strategy. Offer to caravan, give rides, or ride public transport with anyone who is nervous. Don’t be shy about offering help. Just get out of the house and be a witness if you have to. Don’t forget people experiencing homelessness. Prioritize people over buildings: mosques, synagogues, and community centers are easy to protect, but they can be rebuilt. Make plans.
Stay alive and stay healthy. The suggestions I’ve offered here all involve exposure to other people. Do what you can to stay COVID-free between now and the election. Prioritize sleep. Eat, drink water, take your meds. Support those who don’t have the luxury of avoiding exposure. Limit unnecessary risks. We may all have to take necessary risks soon.
* If you’re curious about this dynamic, there are several good places to start. One is Daniel Devine’s work on the connection between hate crimes and the Brexit referendum; another is Steven Wilkinson’s study of electoral competition and ethnic violence in India, Votes and Violence.