As a momentous election draws closer, government leaders and law enforcement agencies are preparing for a contested election and ensuing civil unrest. The FBI and Department of Justice are getting ready for election-related violence. And National Guard leaders have assembled rapid-response forces in two states to deal with potential disruptions.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has been unequivocal that the military should play "no role" in a U.S. election. "Zero," he said. In fact, it is a federal crime to deploy troops to polling places. But what if there are protests, including when voters have already cast their ballots but the final results remain uncertain?
To be clear, if there is any election unrest, the federal government should not be the one handling it. Elections are run at the local and state levels, so those law enforcement agencies should respond. Yet there's concern the president and his allies may try to interfere with election outcomes by deploying — or threatening to deploy — military forces and turn American streets into "battle spaces."
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The Brennan Center for Justice published a concise primer on the use of U.S. troops, other federal employees (including the Justice Department), militias or others to watch polls or oversee voting, the way President Trump has suggested that his "army" of supporters might do.
The bottom line is that in almost all cases, federal laws prohibit the use of troops or agencies like DOJ or the Department of Homeland Security to enforce election security. The president couldn't deploy the National Guard because when they're under federal command, National Guard troops are considered part of the U.S. military.
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House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a democracy reform plan, focused on a rebalancing of power to bolster Congress at the expense of the presidency, signaling it will be an early priority if their party wins control of both the White House and the entire Capitol this fall.
The legislative outline was compiled without any input from Republicans, underscoring its purpose at least in the short term as a campaign messaging manifesto.
But the plan nonetheless makes clear that Democrats would seek to move swiftly in a Joe Biden administration to reverse many of what they see as a sweeping collection of checks-and-balances abuses by President Trump.
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Leach works for SHL & Associates, a Texas consulting firm, and is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank. He has a doctorate in international relations, focused on Africa, from London Metropolitan University.
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