Plan for Armed Guards at Minnesota Polling Sites Spurs Lawsuit

Minneapolis voters line up to cast ballots for Minnesota’s primary election on Aug. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A Tennessee security company’s effort to recruit and deploy an armed and paid militia to Minnesota polling places made its way to federal court Tuesday, where two nonprofits accused the company of trying to intimidate voters.

Tennessee-based Atlas Aegis made headlines earlier this month when the Washington Post reported that it was soliciting former Special Forces members to guard Minnesota polling places from antifascists in partnership with an unidentified local security firm.

In a complaint filed Tuesday morning, the Minnesota chapters of the League of Women Voters and the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel, a Donald Trump appointee, to prevent the company and chairman Anthony Caudle from doing so. The groups argue recruiting militias to observe polling places is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Advertisements posted by Atlas Aegis called for “armed security” for the election and for “post-election support missions,” offering $700 per day with a $210 per diem and transportation reimbursement of up to $910 per day to “protect election polls, local businesses and residences from looting and destruction.” The ad specifically sought out Special Operations Forces personnel for these missions, which it said could last between 15 and 30 days after the election.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Secretary of State Steve Simon, both Democrats, have each publicly discouraged the company from bringing armed contractors to Minnesota polling places, notifying them that anyone within 100 yards of a polling place for a reason other than voting, staffing the polling place or acting as a challenger is violating state law.

The complaint drew links between Atlas Aegis’ recruitment effort and President Trump’s own statements connecting “antifa,” which Trump has portrayed as a terrorist group, to Black Lives Matter activists and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

Those and other statements, according to the complaint, had already spurred acts of domestic terrorism including an alleged kidnapping plot targeting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the murder of two Black Lives Matter activists in Wisconsin. Police have charged 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who had traveled from Illinois with the stated purpose of protecting property, in the Kenosha killings.

“Defendants’ objective is to further intimidate people with certain political beliefs from accessing polling locations through the presence of armed, highly trained, and elite security personnel,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants’ threat is terrifyingly credible given the concrete steps they have already taken to recruit those armed personnel, particularly considering the context of broader intimidation efforts targeting voters and activists in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States.”

Jaylani Hussein, executive director for the Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his organization joined the lawsuit against Atlas Aegis because Muslims in Minnesota are among those most likely to be hurt by intimidation from militias.

“We’ve been dealing with white supremacist militia groups,” he said in an interview, adding that America’s Somali refugee population and its epicenter in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood have long been targets of racist fearmongering and violence and could be severely impacted by voter intimidation.

“It’s a specific demographic that traditionally do not vote in high numbers,” Hussein said, noting that Democrat Hillary Clinton won Minnesota in 2016 by only an extremely slim margin. “If any intimidation efforts are successful, we are concerned that that could have a huge impact on the election.”

Altas Aegis did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Washington Post, Caudle confirmed that his firm had been hired by a “consortium of business owners and concerned citizens” in Minnesota. He said he wanted to send a “large contingent” to the state but voters would not have reason for concern.

“They’re there for protection, that’s it,” he told the Post. “They’re there to make sure that the antifas don’t try to destroy the election sites.”

Nick Harper, the civic engagement director for the League of Women Voters’ Minnesota chapter, said in an interview the idea of antifascists attempting to destroy election sites was a “phantom.”

“That’s made up. There has not been a single whisper of anything like that happening,” he said.

“Local election officials already have a plan in place. If something were to happen – which again, there’s no evidence of that – but if something were to happen, there’s a plan in place to handle that situation,” Harper added.

He said local police and the National Guard can be relied on to prevent violence.

“We don’t need unlawful militias violating the voting rights act to fight an imaginary foe,” he said.

Hussein said he hoped the suit would serve as a warning for other would-be voter intimidators.

“We don’t know how this advertisement will play with those who are not part of this group as well,” he said. “So we want to send a signal to anyone and everyone who tries to do this that they will be prosecuted, and that it is illegal in the state of Minnesota to engage in this kind of very blatant voter suppression effort.”

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