Citizen Vigilantism Targeting Democracy and More

Voting Voting Rights

May 13, 2022

            New Orleans      It’s not just January 6th that shows how transferring accountability from institutions and governments to rank-and-file citizens can go awry.  There seems to be a collapse in the thin wall between legitimate citizen action and calls to citizen vigilantism popping up more and more.

I stand behind no one when it comes to being an advocate and participant in citizen action as the heartbeat of democracy.  I’m a more-more-more guy whether that’s calls and letters to government officials of sit-ins and rallies at their offices, even homes, to address grievances, be heard, and win change.  I’m all for whistleblowers doing their blowing, being shielded from harassment and abuse, and getting compensated when they protect consumers and citizens.  The questions are where do we drawn the line, and who and how handles the guardrails on the line.

This issue came up on a regular call of our team when we were discussing the voter monitoring that we do through our partnership project, the Voter Purge Project.  We’re getting ready over the next several weeks to release our rankings of how all of the states handle voter list maintenance, access, and security.  This has been a hot button issue in elections over decades, but now, using increased computer capacity and database experts and engineers, we are able to construct bulwarks against suppression as opposed to routine, normal maintenance triggered by changes of address and mortality.  One of our team had noticed an AP article on a guy in Georgia that had called out his county because the match between the voter file and the post office’s address database indicated that more than 13,000 voters there were registered at different addresses that didn’t match.  Sometimes this happens because of delays or timing issues when counties or states “clean” the lists by calendar prompts.  Sometimes it’s something else less benign.  Keep in mind that Georgia has been notorious in the past for being overly aggressive in purging the lists, most notably in the governor’s race with Stacey Abrams several years ago.  We’ll see what the facts are soon.

What’s worrisome though is that this guy’s challenge – and there are likely more coming – was triggered by Georgia’s highly controversial new election laws last year.  This one element didn’t get a lot of attention, but it empowers any citizen to challenge any number of other citizens over their right to vote.  Forsyth is not some itty-bitty country county, but part of metro Atlanta, but still it is easy to imagine how the system could be clogged up with a call to citizen vigilantes to challenge tens and tens of thousands of voters for any reason under the sun in Georgia in order to suppress their votes and create even more obstacles than other sections of the law mandated.  We’ve seen this Trump-tactic in the post-2020 election in state after state.

To me, the Georgia problem also seems too close to the way Texas tried to skirt their governmental responsibilities when the legislature in their most recent anti-abortion law, still pending in some courts, gave citizens the individual right to sue doctors, clinics, and others to enforce their law. This kind of thing is not about accountability or citizen participation and action, but about mischief, mayhem, and new kind of modern take-the-law-into-our-own-hands vigilantism.  On January 6th we saw what happens when the call goes out, no matter how specious, for true believers to take enforcement of the law in their own hands.  Citizen vigilantism in the courts is a problem.  With the right’s focus on county election officials and secretaries of state so that more conspiratorial claims can trigger more mess, I’m sure this isn’t citizen action like the Voter Purge Project, but vigilantism meant to wreck the system and retool it as a weapon rather than part of the sanctified foundation of our democracy.   Yes, two can play this game, but I’m not comfortable with the consequences.