WASHINGTON – Federal laws and long-standing custom generally leave the U.S. military out of the election process. But President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated warnings about widespread voting irregularities have raised questions about a possible military role.
If any element of the military were to get involved, it would likely be the National Guard under state control. These citizen soldiers could help state or local law enforcement with any major election-related violence. But the Guard’s more likely roles will be less visible — filling in as poll workers, out of uniform, and providing cybersecurity expertise in monitoring potential intrusions into election systems.
Unlike regular active-duty military, the Guard answers to its state’s governor, not the president. Under limited circumstances, Trump could federalize them, but in that case, they would generally be barred from doing law enforcement.
A look at the potential National Guard role in the election:
WHAT MIGHT THE GUARD DO?
Governors could activate the Guard to help with security in the event of violence. That happened this week in Pennsylvania amid demonstrations over the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia. The mayor's office said the city requested that the Pennsylvania National Guard help with “the current situation and election preparation.”
In some states, Guard members in civilian clothes were used as poll workers during primary elections because of shortages caused by the pandemic. The Guard in New Jersey is helping with balloting now, and other states including Wisconsin say they may use the Guard at the polls.
Stephen Dycus, professor emeritus at Vermont Law School, said states can, if necessary, deploy uniformed Guard troops to help keep order at the polls. But, he said, “there’s a very fine line between protection and intimidation. So any activity that is designed to intimidate voters or suppress voting violates federal election laws."