from Center for Preventive Action

Preventing U.S. Election Violence in 2024

Contingency Planning Memorandum

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump riot in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Leah Millis/Reuters

Violence around U.S. elections in 2024 could not only destabilize American democracy but also embolden autocrats across the world. Jacob Ware recommends that political leaders take steps to shore up civic trust and remove the opportunity for violence ahead of the 2024 election season.

April 17, 2024

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump riot in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Leah Millis/Reuters
Contingency Planning Memorandum
Contingency Planning Memoranda identify plausible scenarios that could have serious consequences for U.S. interests and propose measures to both prevent and mitigate them.

Introduction

There is a serious risk of extremist violence around the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Many of the same sources of instability and grievances that precipitated the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol (along with other challenges to the outcome of the last election) remain present today. And, while the risk of far-right election-related violence is greater, the possibility of far-left extremist violence cannot be dismissed. Such violence threatens individual lives and the domestic political stability of the country.

Jacob Ware
Jacob Ware

Research Fellow

It could also undermine the United States’ international standing and foreign policy goals, in a year where at least eighty elections will take place around the world. U.S.-based election violence has already inspired one similar incident, in Brazil in January 2023, and further disruption could affect the rules-based international order in ways detrimental to U.S. interests as it embarks on a new generation in strategic competition. The United States would also benefit from serving as the standard-setter on several associated issues, such as disinformation on social media and the rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on elections.

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Radicalization and Extremism

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Election 2024

Lessening the risk of such a contingency is therefore an urgent national security imperative. Political leaders and other participants in the political and civic process need to implement a range of measures to prevent and manage violent election-related extremism.

The Contingency

Several plausible scenarios could develop between now and Inauguration Day. The scenarios can be broken down into events that occur before the election, during early voting in October and on election day in November, and in the weeks after the election, possibly lingering into the new administration. Each scenario poses different challenges to different constituencies and could be inspired or driven by differing accelerants.

Pre-election

The first and most urgent scenario involves assassination threats against campaigning candidates and other public officials. According to Seamus Hughes and Pete Simi of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, “over the past 10 years, more than 500 individuals have been arrested for threatening public officials. And the trendline is shooting up.” In recent years, for example, the lives of Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin were all threatened. Nikki Haley, the Republican runner-up, requested Secret Service protection during her campaign, indicating that violent threats have already surfaced in this cycle as well. The United States has been spared a high-profile assassination for more than a half-century. However, lack of success should not be taken to suggest lack of intent. Precisely this point was underscored on June 14, 2017, when a far-left extremist opened fire at a baseball practice of congressional Republicans, gravely wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise before being killed by the congressman’s Capitol Police detail.

Second, large party and voter gatherings, such as the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, as well as primary elections and caucuses, could pose attractive targets. The conventions will boast the largest collections of party members and leaders throughout the entire election cycle and could therefore attract individuals or groups with a vendetta. News headquarters will also be potential targets given extremist rhetoric depicting the media the “enemy of the people.”

Third, dates associated with the former president’s legal troubles could also trigger violent extremists. Trump’s legal challenges have thrust the 2024 election into unprecedented territory, with the possibility of a presidential candidate running for office from the courtroom, and possibly jail. The public process and potential legal outcomes could accelerate and spur violent attacks.

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Radicalization and Extremism

U.S. Elections

Democracy

Election 2024

Election

Once voting begins, the first and most likely scenario is violence and intimidation at polling places and against election workers, or against drive-by or drop-off balloting sites and their collection points. This could include armed militia groups “observing” the election for fraud but, in reality, intimidating voters. In 2020, for example, Oath Keepers gathered at polling places to, in Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes’s words, “protect people who are voting.” Such gatherings could intimidate voters and disrupt Election Day by dampening turnout. This scenario could be driven both by any candidate calls to arms as well as by grassroots voices sensitive to local issues, vulnerabilities, and voting preferences, and to individual poll workers expressing or acting upon their personal political views. Such violence provides less of a model for partners and adversaries in the international space, given that the November election will occur after most other 2024 elections have occurred.

Once voting is completed, threats could turn against those counting the ballots. During the 2020 election, some of the more vitriolic threats were delivered against election officials in swing states. The sequencing of vote counting can play a part, such as when early, mail, and absentee ballots, which tend to lean Democratic, are counted last, leading to “red mirages” in which Republican candidates take early leads that fade in the final legal vote tally. In 2020, for example, federal agents arrested two QAnon supporters from Virginia who showed up with firearms at a convention center in Philadelphia where votes were still being counted three days after Election Day. Political calls to “stop the count” or “stop the steal” can make a violent response more likely.

Once voting is completed, threats could turn against those counting the ballots.

Post-election

In the post-election era, depending on election results, attacks against government buildings and/or law enforcement officials will likely be the preferred means as violent extremists aim to take the fight directly to those they deem responsible for malfeasance. This scenario was seen at COVID protests in April 2020, sprawling anti-fascist rioting that summer, at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and the attack against the FBI in Cincinnati. Here, the main accelerant will be political rhetoric interpreted by violently inclined individuals as calls for violence. Perhaps the most significant lesson of January 6 is that even seemingly innocuous moments can provide the impetus for extremist gatherings given the right combination of messaging and momentum. Any number of constitutional milestones—when electors vote in their home states; the January 6, 2025, counting of electoral votes; or Inauguration Day itself—could thus provide the spark, particularly among far-right violent extremists. Far-left violence responding to a disappointing election result will likely be more sporadic and disorganized. Militant anarchists, in particular, could be active, as seen on inauguration day in 2017. Still, the bond between far-left anarchists and the political system is not as strong as on the right, making it unlikely that extremists respond to any call for violence from politicians.

Should multiple, organized extremist elements take up arms in defense of their candidates or other interests, sustained violence between political factions across broad geographic spaces remains possible. This level of violence has not yet been reached during the current escalation in domestic terrorism, except at a small scale on American streets in clashes between the Proud Boys and anti-fascists. Should those skirmishes escalate, they would pose a serious threat to law and order. The gravest fear, full-scale and total civil war, remains unlikely, in large part due to the lack of safe havens or sanctuaries for extremists in the United States. Political divides today run along urban-rural delineations, not northern-southern, which will likely stunt any budding civil war in its infancy.

Warning Indicators

The most urgent warning sign of impending violence will be the words of the candidates themselves. Political figures are certain to use divisive and perhaps even existential political rhetoric during the campaign, warning of an urgent threat to the rank-and-file of either political party and to the country as a whole. Politicians deploy such rhetoric to frighten their base into voting, but such action also increases the odds of individuals turning to violent solutions if their candidate loses or appears to be in arrears. Existential rhetoric from within the political system or from candidates or parties can translate into implicit and explicit calls for violence, including against members of one’s own party, another important warning indicator. Even regular political rhetoric could be taken as calls to violence, particularly given that Americans are increasingly divided. Polls show that almost a quarter of Americans (33 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats) believe that “American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country.”

The most urgent warning sign of impending violence will be the words of the candidates themselves.

Casting doubt over election results before voting commences heightens the possibility of violent extremism. “Pre-bunking” of fair election outcomes sows doubts in the minds of voters who then see eventual electoral defeats as confirmation of fraud rather than a rejection of one’s political platform, unlocking inherent confirmation biases. Politicians on both the left and right have been responsible for such rhetoric, the right issuing warnings of stolen dating back to the 2016 race, and the left often expressing concern over alleged voter suppression in predominantly Black southern communities.

The risk of more organized and widespread violence could be heralded by armed paramilitary mobilization, including on social media. January 6 was preceded by an onslaught of threats and public organizing, which was largely ignored by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Extremist infiltrations of law enforcement agencies (including the Capitol Police) and the military, coupled with the radicalization of active duty service members, also bears monitoring as both would considerably undermine any mitigative countermeasures arrayed against violent actors.

Finally, national security professionals should be vigilant in tracking foreign interference, whether covert (and therefore likely hidden from public view until after the election) or overt, including foreign leaders casting doubt on election results before voting commences. Adversaries such as China, Iran, and Russia will eagerly exploit any opportunity to weaken the United States and will likely issue widespread disinformation to cause disunity, as in 2016 and 2020. Social media remains a defining battlefield in twenty-first-century elections, and the situation has only grown more fraught with the development of powerful tools such as generative AI, which, for instance, was used to attempt to dampen the Biden vote during the New Hampshire primary. The social media platform X poses a particular new challenge. Owner Elon Musk has reduced content moderation and allowed disinformation on the platform, creating an opening for manipulation by domestic and foreign actors alike, as well as AI-generated content.

Implications for U.S. Interests

The assassination of a politician or election official could seriously undermine U.S. democratic institutions and traditions. More broadly, the rejection of election results could undermine civil society and further polarize the nation, while the mere threat of violence at polling places could dissuade voters from making their voices heard, further weakening American democracy. Threats issued against poll workers undermine American democratic traditions; volunteers seeking to participate in the civic process do not anticipate being targeted for their service, and such threats could deter their participation.

But perhaps equally damaging, American political violence, particularly concentrated around election cycles, poses grave threats to the rules-based international order. U.S. electoral turmoil could provide a model for further seditious organizing in allied states. Such contagion has already been seen in Brazil, and could undermine election integrity in a year with upwards of eighty elections worldwide. Domestic violent extremism also undermines U.S. credibility on international human rights and its international security credentials. On January 7, 2021, for instance, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed that American support for pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong was now a sign of hypocrisy: “On the issue of human rights, democracy, and freedom, double standard should be discarded. I hope the relevant countries can think about this and learn real lessons from it.” An author linked to al-Qaeda, meanwhile, wrote that January 6 had made amends for mistakes made on 9/11: “I realized the wisdom of God almighty in not guiding the fourth plane to its target, for their destroying the citadel of their democracy by their own hands ... is more damaging to them & more soothing to the hearts of the believers.”

U.S. electoral turmoil could provide a model for further seditious organizing in allied states

U.S. electoral turmoil could also offer a “window of opportunity” for state and nonstate adversaries to act—whether through direct terrorism launched at the United States or U.S. interests, or other hybrid measures intended to undermine U.S. security and standing. Hamas’s attack on Israel at a time of profound internal turmoil in that country is an example of such opportunism. Russia also launched its invasion of Ukraine at a time of perceived Western weakness and division.

Preventive Options

In the same way that law enforcement officials deconstruct the motives, means, and opportunities behind criminal behavior to design more effective preventive measures, so too can election administrators assess policy options to lessen the risk of domestic political violence around the 2024 election.

The leading reason for the rise in domestic terrorism in recent years is a heightened motive or intent toward acts of violence. Reducing motive, therefore, is both paramount to prevention and a daunting challenge. In the build-up to the election, mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle can use their platforms to speak out against division and publicly praise the integrity of U.S. democracy. Although federal politicians have been reluctant to be outspoken against divisive politics (perhaps warily watching the examples of Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who no longer serve in Congress after sitting on the January 6 committee), state and local officials have been far more committed to upholding democratic norms in their constituencies. Many maintain the trust of a large swathe of the American people and can call for peace and calm. One example of this commitment is Republican Utah Governor (and Chair of the National Governors Association) Spencer Cox’s Disagree Better initiative, which aims “to model how to disagree better, setting an example and creating the permission structure and template for other public officials at every level to follow.” Such measures, critically, do not touch on political or ideological differences, but instead emphasize shared interests such as civil disagreement and trust and faith in democracy.

The Joe Biden administration has several options to lower the country’s temperature and promote a peaceful and orderly election process. For instance, President Biden could task agencies such as the Department of Education or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to issue nonpartisan educational tools that teach the American public about the electoral process and its resilience to manipulation. Such positive pre-bunking could prevent electoral conspiracy theories from taking root as widely as they did in 2020. The Biden administration could also push states to reverse their vote-counting timelines to count the usually Democratic early, mail, and absentee ballots ahead of the typically Republican day-of votes—or to count votes simultaneously. Although a hard mandate to count votes earlier could violate the Tenth Amendment, gentle encouragement could help reverse the red mirage that contributed to January 6 and the “stop the steal” movement—although there is, of course, the danger of a “blue mirage” instead contributing to violence by far-left extremists. Media organizations could also avoid covering vote tallying, waiting to announce results until they are confirmed and finalized.

The Biden administration, as well as law enforcement professionals, could also look abroad for best practices on reducing intent to commit electoral violence. In Preventing and Mitigating Election-Related Violence [PDF], a policy directive issued by the UN Department of Political Affairs in June 2016, the first suggestion is “Reducing high stakes in politics, promoting measures to move away from ‘zero sum’ politics and ensuring against a monopoly of power by one group.” One possible measure to reduce intent to violence, then, would be to promote democracy’s guarantee that the voices and views of the expected losing entity can still be acknowledged and advanced despite electoral defeat. In other words, politicians could employ language promising inclusivity and unity, perhaps on issues of bipartisan concern such as immigration, providing assurances that all Americans would have a seat at the table in the new administration. As stated by UN guidance, “When parties are quite certain of loss or exclusion in an electoral contest, especially when they expect to be ‘permanent minorities’ (to lose not just once, but again and again due to patterns of identity voting), the certainty of outcomes is also a strong causal driver of violence.” In addition, the United States could publicize the cadre of international election observers to increase trust in the process.

In a time of unprecedented distrust of politicians and Congress, American civil society can also help bridge the trust deficit that extremist radicalizers often use to prey on vulnerable people, cajoled by politicians but ultimately acting independently of the political system. Religious leaders and educators, especially at the local level, have a unique platform to educate their constituents on the importance of free and fair elections and neighborliness, even if they vote differently. Sports stars and labor leaders, among other civil society actors, can also call for peace and calm without wading into political questions. The Department of Homeland Security, through its Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, could redouble its grant-making efforts to both national and local nonprofit organizations working to reduce radicalization and violent extremism. The private sector, chiefly social media companies, also bears a responsibility to moderate the most serious calls for sedition and disrupt extremist cells. Social media companies can set stronger standards for AI use on their platforms and work to undermine actors using AI to affect the election process.

Reducing the capability to inflict violence will also be central. Indeed, the successful application of lessons learned after January 6 would considerably strengthen the United States’ electoral resilience. Intelligence sharing between federal, state, and local partners, as well as with fusion centers (defined by DHS as “state-owned and operated centers that serve as focal points in states and major urban areas for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between State, Local, Tribal and Territorial (SLTT), federal, and private sector partners”), is critical. Threats issued by extremist groups and networks should be taken seriously, unlike on January 6, when preparations were not commensurate with the volume of intelligence suggesting armed actors planned to descend on the capital. Government officials across the aisle could work with legacy media to emphasize the nonpartisan mandate of the DHS, FBI, and state and local law enforcement to undermine allegations of partisanship and politicization. Leaning on local police forces would also build legitimacy, allowing more trusted law enforcement to adhere to their job of keeping the peace in their communities.

At a tactical counterterrorism level, the Department of Justice’s continued legal efforts to disrupt leading domestic extremist organizations—including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys—builds deterrence against future acts of violence. Although the leadership of both groups is already serving jail time for seditious conspiracy as a result of January 6, which has undermined both groups while building a stronger deterrent against violence, such legal efforts could continue as the election cycle heats up. Government efforts to deter or defuse violence will be complicated, however, by extremist networks’ continued adherence to the leaderless resistance (“lone wolf”) strategy, which hampers the ability of law enforcement to penetrate groups and limits the intelligence value of any individual capture. Militant anarchists, for instance, will continue to operate in spontaneous “black blocs,” which similarly complicate infiltration and arrests. Efforts to reduce particularly lethal weaponry will likely fall flat, but could still be attempted.

Finally, law enforcement agencies could remove opportunities for violence by hardening soft targets and maximizing law enforcement readiness and even preparing for military intervention. The federal government’s law enforcement agencies could seek to designate important events, such as the political conventions and the election itself, as National Special Security Events, which would open a range of new law enforcement tools to prevent and respond to violence. A streamlined electoral process, including the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act passed in response to January 6, could also limit opportunities for violent interventions.

Mitigation Options

Mitigation scenarios assume efforts to prevent both motive and means to violence have failed. Therefore, the mitigative options will concentrate on limiting further opportunity while lessening the harmful impact of any early violent events. At the milder end of the spectrum of responses to early violence, a more visible law enforcement presence at various key sites could deter violence and encourage voters to safely cast their ballots. Focusing on local law enforcement would allay concerns of a federal government crackdown, allowing local authorities to emphasize the sanctity of the rule of law within their own communities. The hardening of such soft targets would also allow law enforcement professionals to limit the threat to civilian life should any violence erupt.

Focusing on local law enforcement would allay concerns of a federal government crackdown

A variant of the United Kingdom’s Operation Temperer—which allows soldiers to guard certain locations so police resources can focus elsewhere—could be conducted during several phases of the election cycle using the National Guard. Particularly symbolic or important sites, such as the U.S. Capitol, could be sealed off from the public, as occurred in the aftermath of January 6. This approach has historical antecedents; the U.S. government deployed the military in the Reconstruction era to suppress threats by the Ku Klux Klan against Black voters. The major downside of such an approach would be the militarization of U.S. elections, which would undermine American democracy and yield a further propaganda victory to adversaries. 

In a worst-case scenario, the Biden administration could attempt to declare martial law in order to suspend the electoral process and allow the military to intervene in particularly violent uprisings. However, such a move would pose an existential threat to American democracy, effectively ending America’s status as leader of the free world with few clear and secure paths forward. 

The Biden administration could also simply take a hands-off approach, believing that American institutions are stronger than those who would try to undermine them and recognizing that violence has failed in the past to undermine electoral processes, including during January 6. Such a “keep calm and carry on” approach would yield control but could protect American institutions from further internal damage. It would also avoid feeding into right-wing narratives about the weaponization of the federal government, while ensuring that a cure for violence is not worse than the disease.

Recommendations

The range of stakeholders, including government, the private sector, and civil society, with the power to help prevent and counter election-related violence in 2024 should prepare countermeasures at the motive, means, and opportunity levels.

Reducing motive

The Biden administration should encourage early and mail-in voting for voters on both sides of the aisle to thin election day crowds that could otherwise become targets, and states should be encouraged to count absentee and mail-in ballots early to avoid red mirages that could fuel electoral conspiracy theories. Media companies should avoid reporting on vote tallying until final results are confirmed.

Responsible poll-watching should be amplified and celebrated, and efforts to introduce trusted authorities into the electoral system, such as the military-linked nonprofit Vet the Vote, should be encouraged. Publicizing and celebrating the integrity of the vote and of the many civil servants who contribute to its execution will demystify the process and build trust in the system.

Candidates and both parties should commit to upholding critical democratic values such as truth, honesty, free press, and the rule of law. Policymakers from both parties should unite around political slogans that enhance trust in the electoral system and delegitimize violence. Such calls should be joined by segments of civil society, such as church groups, sports teams, and universities. Governors and other state and local officials should join the Disagree Better campaign. Given their leadership roles in the election process itself, state and local officials should educate their constituencies about the integrity of the electoral process, the nonpartisan makeup of poll workers, and the importance of adhering to democratic traditions.

Candidates and party officials should avoid existential rhetoric and absolutist promises, which the United Nations has found to reduce tension in other contexts. Politicians should issue frequent reminders to their followers that they desire peaceful political change.

Government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels should work to improve transparency and pre-bunk conspiracy theories questioning the legitimacy of elections. One possible model is how the U.S. intelligence community pre-bunked Russian justifications for its invasion of Ukraine in 2022—although it is unclear who would be able to share such stories beyond party apparatuses and civil society organizations. 

Social media companies, meanwhile, should take more aggressive steps to limit the free rein of electoral conspiracy theories on their platforms, while legacy media outlets should work to avoid sensationalist reporting, including reporting portraying the opposition party as an existential threat or individual politicians as corrupt or dangerous. Legitimate community note programs should be expanded to ensure bad information can be drowned out by factcheckers. Social media companies should take aggressive stances against AI-enabled disinformation and deepfakes, particularly as they concern political figures. Intelligence agencies should carefully monitor social media platforms for disinformation campaigns, surmounting threats issued by the political right against such activity.

Trusted civil society actors, including religious leaders, labor unions, Hollywood, and sports teams and athletes, should call for peace and goodwill, avoiding discussions of politics or ideology to instead focus on widely shared values such as nonviolence. Trusted leaders should educate their constituencies on civics and election integrity, and should prepare to band together in nonpartisan fashion should violence erupt.

Reducing means

Law enforcement agencies should conduct trainings and improve intelligence sharing across levels of government, as well as with fusion centers and nonprofit organizations. Extremists should be taken at their word—threats of violence or insurrection should not be dismissed as bluster or an unrealistic proposition. Professionals should not ignore lessons learned from January 6—including keeping the National Guard on standby and not ignoring intelligence warnings. As part of such efforts, law enforcement agencies with different and overlapping mandates should establish best practices and plans to ensure smooth coordination. This process should be aided by designating national conventions, Election Day, and January 6 as National Special Security Events. 

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should strengthen their protection of political candidates, election workers, and voting infrastructure. The Department of Justice’s Election Threats Task Force should be fully resourced and staffed—and could expand its remit to protect polling places and particularly vulnerable politicians. The volume of threats could be so great that not every site can be protected, and law enforcement should be prepared to prioritize particularly high-value targets, beginning with leading politicians and important political locations.

Policymakers and pundits across the political spectrum should work to erode the prevalent framing of January 6 defendants as heroes and martyrs, building a stronger deterrent against acts of political violence. Civil society leaders and state and local officials should emphasize the critical importance of nonviolent means of driving political change.

Removing opportunity

Any decisions made to dampen unrest or violence with massed law enforcement or military assets should be made as an absolute last resort, with the public blessing of influential civil society actors and mainstream politicians across the aisle. Such measures should be incremental, involving steadily increasing presences of law enforcement or National Guard units, in order to avoid the perception of an overreaching federal response.

Should the United States fail to adequately prepare for the risks of electoral violence in 2024, the integrity of the election will be on the line. In a year featuring at least eighty elections around the world, the United States will also provide a blueprint for autocrats elsewhere seeing to contest and undermine their own elections. Ensuring a peaceful, fair, and thriving election is therefore of critical importance, both to American democracy as well as democracy around the world.

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