The National Guard has been activated several times during 2020 to help combat the coronavirus, handle hurricane destruction and placate the social and racial uproar following the police killing of George Floyd.
Now, at least ten states have called on the Guard to be ready to respond to potential violent outbreak on Election Day or in the days following, by assisting at polling locations without uniform and protecting the streets from brutal protests.
Troops have been on standby since earlier this month when murmurs about potential unrest post-Election Day first surfaced, with some governors more recently calling on additional Guard troops.
“Decisions to activate National Guard in the states are made by state governors, based on local advice from law enforcement and the Guard concerning the potential for violence and/or widespread law violations beyond the capabilities of local law enforcement,” William C. Banks, professor of law and founding director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University College of Law, said. “Those deployed to assist at polling locations are doing so in civilian clothing specifically to forestall fear or intimidation among voters. Those deployed in uniform cannot be at or near polling places or anywhere where votes are being counted.”
Several major cities across the country—including New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles—have also boarded up storefronts in preparation for impending riots and violence.
“Clearly there is much angst from coast to coast,” Daniel L. Davis, contributor to The National Interest and a retired Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, said, referring to the city preparation. “In that light, it is not surprising that some state governors would conduct limited [call-ups] in case they were needed.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) ordered a number of Florida National Guard members activated in several regions across the Sunshine State. Although the number of Guardsmen remains unspecified, Florida National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Caitlin Brown said, “Out of an abundance of caution, the Florida National Guard is activating a number of Soldiers who will be pre-positioned in several locations across the state, standing by to assist local law enforcement and their communities as needed.”
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) also ordered Guardsmen to remain geared up in the event of overwhelming unrest, calling for 1,000 Guards to provide added assistance to state and local authorities “for the preservation of life and property, preservation of order, and to afford protections to persons,” according to the order. While there hasn’t been a strong indication of an impending threat, state officials claim more Guardsmen may be called on in the days following the election.
Wisconsin—a state that’s been brutally hit by the second wave of the coronavirus in recent weeks with hospitalizations and deaths surging—has ordered up to 400 citizen soldiers and airmen to aid early-voting and Election Day polls. Those who are not fully suited will assist “to ensure that election day goes smoothly and that voters and election officials alike have the assistance they need,” Gov. Tony Evers (D) said in a press release.
While activating the Guard might be seen as a way to instill fear among residents, Davis said that “it might calm some fears” instead, as the troops are prepared with to swiftly respond.
“I don’t think calling up the Guard causes fear in the population. It is the fear already in the population that prompted the call-ups. If anything, it might calm some fears, because some will find solace in the reality that if the National Guard is needed, they are already on duty,” Davis added.
Claire Finkelstein, professor law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said that fears that loomed when President Donald Trump chose to “‘federalize’ the National Guard” and “impose their presence on states that do not want them.”
“We saw this situation in Portland, Oregon over the summer, where demonstrations were escalated due to the presence of federal agents who were not wanted by the state governor and local officials,” she added.
“Their training is strong and their mission is peaceful. Most Americans know them as the wing of the military that provides support in case of natural disasters, and know them as highly trained and professional in their demeanor,” Finkelstein said, referring to the Guard.
It’s unclear which election result outcome will bring more unrest, if at all.
“The National Guard should always be the force of last resort in quelling civil unrest. Their primary purpose is disaster response at home and to backstop the active force overseas in the event they are needed in war. That they are being called up now is an indication of how tense conditions are in America today,” Davis said.
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.