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Michigan voters fear post-election violence, foreign interference, poll finds

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Amid heightened polarization, an overwhelming majority of Michigan voters are worried about the potential for violence occurring in the wake of the Nov. 3 presidential election, according to a new survey. 

A poll of 600 likely Michigan voters commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV found that 72% are concerned about post-election violence and nearly 64% are worried about foreign interference in the election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and President Donald Trump.

"I don’t know any time in the last 40 years that American voters were worried about violence as a result of the election. That really is a startling number," said pollster Richard Czuba of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group, which conducted the survey. 

He noted the concern comes on both sides of the aisle and from those in the political center.

The angst over political violence follows recent high-profile incidents including the alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, members of armed militant groups occupying the state Capitol and the ongoing debate over allowing the open-carry of firearms at polling places in Michigan.

"It is absolutely feeding into this concern of violence, and that's not something American voters are used to," Czuba said. "If there's a message coming out of all of this, it is for political leaders of both parties to turn down the temperature." 

The survey found those concerned about post-election violence are 75% of Democrats, 67% of Republicans and 67% of independent voters. The poll, conducted Oct. 23-25, had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Poll respondent Dylan Wolf, 24, of New Baltimore was among them, citing the plot against Whitmer and the people planning to arm themselves at the polls.

"It’s raised a lot of questions for me about my neighbors in terms of, just who lives in Michigan?" said Wolf, who owns a small vintage clothing business in Port Huron.

"These could be everyday people, but in their homes, in the back rooms they are planning plots to capture the governor. That seems like something very far out to me, like something that I wouldn't have expected."

He faults political leaders, including President Donald Trump, for not strongly discouraging white supremacists and other far-right groups. 

"These groups are not being told no in the right ways," Wolf said. "That really empowers these people to think they can go out and do these things — plot these things and show up at protests and cause trouble and things like that."

Molly Foster of Brighton said she is also worried about violence, in part because Trump has for months been planting "seeds of doubt" about the fairness of expanding mail-in or absentee balloting, which many people are relying on amid the pandemic. 

"I have an overwhelming sense of dread, to be honest with you," she said. "I think he is trying to aggravate the situation and stir things up."

The poll found likely Michigan voters are split on the potential for a large number of fraudulent absentee ballots being cast in the Nov. 3 election, with nearly half worried and 49% saying they are not concerned. 

Eighty-three percent of base Republican voters registered concern about fraud. 

"I think everybody watching campaign sees that’s a very intentional message being sent to the Republican base," Czuba said.

"That the message is being delivered because Republicans are getting clobbered in absentee votes. It’s important to ask the question: Are there fraudulent absentee ballots? Or are the claims being raised as a political strategy?"

Nikki Schueller inserts her absentee voter ballot into a drop box in Troy.

Fred White, 39, of Newport in Monroe County is a Libertarian-leaning voter who is worried about the large number of mail-in ballots — in part because he does not trust the work of the U.S. Postal Service, he said. 

"I can barely get a package or a letter delivered on time, and I don't think that having a bunch of ballots in the mail makes sense," White said. "At least with the machines it's centralized so it'd be easier to control."

Nearly 64% of poll respondents reported at least some concern about foreign interference in the election, with more Democratic voters worried (81%) than independents (55%) and Republicans (47%). 

"It's interesting that the base of the Republican Party is split on this. What you have are those people who saw the Russian threat as a hoax versus establishment Republicans who very much understand the threat of Russian interference," Czuba said. 

"We're gonna see a lot of dueling factions in the GOP, but this is one of them. Those who understand that other countries are trying to interfere, and those who simply want to ignore it because they think it's an attack on President Trump."

About 52% of respondents said they fear Trump will refuse to leave the White House if he loses, while 23% worry Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the former vice president, won't concede defeat if he loses. 

White said he doesn't think there will be an issue with Trump leaving office, though he will probably contest the results. 

"Do I think if he actually is proven to lose that he'll cause a problem? He'll probably say a bunch of stuff on Twitter, but he'll go because the military is not going to side with him for a coup," White said.

"I also just as likely think the military is not going to side with Biden if he tries to contest a Trump victory. It's a lot of bluster."

About 46% of Republicans are concerned that Biden won't concede, but far more Democrats (75%) are worried Trump won't leave office. Only 1 in 5 GOP voters expressed concerns about Trump not leaving. 

"The Democrats appear to be very anxious about this issue, and part of it is Joe Biden has also been voicing this issue to his voters," Czuba said. 

"Between Trump not stepping down, and the fraudulent absentee ballots, it's a very strong indication that what the top of the ticket says to their supporters does resonate. It is remembered and it does matter."

 mburke@detroitnews.com