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This election could be chaotic. How might that play out in Bloomington?



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This election season is marked by uncertainty, with concerns about delayed results and unrest due to COVID-19. We spoke with election officials and community members to address the questions and concerns that have been raised throughout the campaign and at last week’s presidential debate.

Overall, Monroe County election officials are optimistic about the election going smoothly. They urge voters to vote early and in person and to send any mail-in ballots as soon as possible. 

However, it is important to remain vigilant and informed about what can be done to address potential threats to a free and fair election, both in Monroe County and nationwide. Here’s what you need to know.

Are there concerns about voter intimidation?

At last week’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to monitor the polls, an appeal that many nonpartisan election experts saw as a call to voter intimidation. The call has already been met by some supporters in Philadelphia and could occur in other parts of the country.

Karen Wheeler, the Monroe County election supervisor, said poll watchers must have credentials, which come from her office. Poll watching laws by state can be found here. Nicole Browne, the Monroe County clerk and a member of the election board, further explained poll watchers are not licensed to intimidate or interfere with voters in any way.

“You can’t just walk into a polling site and announce yourself as a poll watcher and think that we are going to allow you to stay,” Browne said. “That would not happen at any time, but especially at this time when people want to know that the people who are in there are supposed to be there.”

Hal Turner, the chair of the Monroe County Election Board, explained the “chute,” which is the area within 50 feet of a polling place. Legally, no partisan activity, from non-credentialed poll watching to demonstrations, is allowed inside the chute. Anyone who attempts to do so will be asked to leave. 

Law enforcement would intervene as needed, but election officials do not foresee law enforcement intervention being necessary if individuals are asked to leave. 

RG Reynolds, a researcher at No Space For Hate, a group fighting white supremacy in Bloomington and the surrounding area, said people tend to think about voter intimidation narrowly. 

Voter intimidation is more than directly threatening voters through violence or deception – intimidation of and violence against Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer is also voter intimidation, Reynolds said. 

“It shows the broader American public that white people can exercise the power over life and death with impunity,” she said. “This Jim Crow-style terror tactic was originally designed to show marginalized people the consequences of speaking up and speaking out.”

She also expressed concerns that on-campus events related to voting and the election could be disrupted by white supremacist or other far-right groups.

To report voter intimidation, accessibility issues or fraud, you can contact state officials here and county officials here. You can also contact the nonpartisan Election Protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.  

Should we be worried about white supremacist interference?

At the debate, Trump also declined to denounce white supremacy, instead telling the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, to “stand back and stand by.” Two days later, he issued a statement condemning white supremacists, but the Proud Boys gained hundreds of members in the 24 hours after the debate.

Reynolds said many white nationalist and white supremacist groups beyond the Proud Boys have become more active as a direct result of Trump’s comment. She said a civil conflict has been brewing since about 2017, and over the next two or three months, there may be more examples of lone-wolf terrorist activity.

“People are waiting for a warning shot or a first major skirmish,” she said. “We like to think of wars in terms of story, in terms of concrete moments where the battles begin and the war is won. And it’s not really so neat or tidy.” 

In Bloomington specifically, she said we are more likely to see an intensification of what has already been happening. That includes far-right and pro-Trump demonstrations featuring white supremacist imagery, heavily armed individuals and physical violence.

According to a No Space for Hate report, Bloomington is a strategic recruiting hub for white supremacist groups. Events like the Aug. 22, pro-police Red, White and Blue Rally are a major draw for far-right and white nationalist organizers from around Indiana, and they bring violence with them. There were also multiple incidents of sexual harassment and two vehicular attacks against Black Lives Matter protesters in Bloomington this summer.

Reynolds said to be vigilant and to immediately report any white supremacist flyering or flyers that spread misinformation about voting to the voter intimidation hotline. For those who will vote in person, she said to go early and leave immediately.

Are there concerns about fraud?

There are many precautions in place to ensure the election is free and fair in Monroe County. 

“Every time a ballot is touched, there has to be a Republican and a Democrat there,” Turner said. The county is still looking for poll workers of both political parties for this reason.

In terms of ballot security, Turner said both in-person and mail-in ballots are put in a locked area with video surveillance, motion detectors and cipher locks. There is one cipher lock for each party, and the two have to be activated within 20 seconds of each other for anyone to have access to the ballots. 

“There will always be a member of each major party observing what happens to those ballots,” Turner said.

What if there are delays declaring winners?

Browne and Wheeler both encouraged all registered voters to vote early and to send mail-in ballots back as early as possible.

“That will help us tremendously as we work to deliver you those accurate election results,” Browne said.

Wheeler said in-person voting, both early and on Election Day, is safe. It is easier than voting by mail, she said.

At last week’s debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates if they would encourage their supporters to remain calm as they waited for votes to be counted. Trump declined to do so, leading some Americans to brace for unrest and violence.

Browne acknowledged this was a concern and asked Monroe County voters to be patient.

“Accuracy is more important than speed,” she said. “I hope that’s true across the nation, but unfortunately I can only be responsible for Monroe County.”

Due to a ruling that Indiana must count all ballots postmarked by Election Day, Wheeler said in case of mail delays, there will be a 10-day waiting period to allow for all mail-in ballots postmarked in time to arrive and be counted, even if they arrive after Election Day. However, if that ruling is appealed and overturned, she expects Monroe County to have results on election night. Delays in national results are likely. 

What if Trump won’t respect the election results?

At the debate, Trump suggested the only way he would lose was by fraud. At a press conference the week before the debate, he declined to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

This has left many to wonder what will happen if he tries to declare himself winner before all the votes are counted or if he tries to remain in office in spite of a loss. Some observers are preparing for the possibility of a coup.

Constitutional lawyers agree that once an election winner is certified, the winner will be installed, but all candidates do have the right to contest election results in the courts. Doing so in every state would be a massive undertaking that would require months of work in advance. If no winner was clear by Inauguration Day, the next person in the line of succession – Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – would assume the presidency.

Even this clear, legal line of succession could be cast into doubt, however. Some legal scholars have argued the Constitution requires only executive branch officials to be included in the line of succession. 

This could create competing claims between Pelosi and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the next member of the executive branch in the line of succession. A similar situation could play out if Trump dies or is incapacitated while the election results are still pending, a concern that has grown more acute since he contracted COVID-19.

Many organizations, namely the Transition Integrity Project, have tried to predict various scenarios to prepare for. The outcomes largely depend on the extent to which the military, other Republican elected officials and the Republican electorate are willing to go along with what Trump does. Democrats have been focused on winning by overwhelming margins so he has no plausible argument upon which to contest the election. 

How is COVID-19 affecting the election?

Wheeler said election officials have picked polling sites that are larger, around 4,000 square feet, to allow for social distancing. In the past, Monroe County has had 34 polling sites. For this election, there are 28 – but that is a large increase from the primary, when only seven polling locations were open. There are fewer polling sites open because officials chose to not use smaller locations that would make social distancing more challenging, such as fire stations.

Browne said the board has mailed out about 12,000 ballot requests, about half the number that were sent out in the primary.

Browne said ensuring safety during the pandemic is at the top of the election board’s priorities. Polling places will have additional safety practices in place, including social distancing and providing hand sanitizer. Voters are encouraged to wear masks. Writing utensils, and anything else voters touch, will be sanitized between uses.

She also said Monroe County had a better-than-expected response to a call for poll workers, which the county put out to allow older or otherwise vulnerable poll workers to take this election off. 

“Every single day, including today, I come into at least a dozen requests for information about working the polls,” she said. “I have no reason to believe we won’t be adequately staffed at all of our polling sites.”

But Turner said the county is still looking for more poll workers from both parties.

“We always need more than enough, because people drop out, people get sick,” he said. If you would like to be a poll worker, you can find who to contact here

Beyond coronavirus safety at the polling places, Trump testing positive for the coronavirus is throwing more uncertainty on an already chaotic election cycle. His diagnosis led white supremacists on Twitter to increase their anti-Chinese sentiment, Reynolds said.

“I think the biggest issue with this is how the virus with actually be used if people recover. Because it’s more than just Trump,” she said, referring to the other high-level Republicans that tested positive. “It’s really thrown a lot of gasoline on the fire.”

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