The National Guard is gearing up to activate across the country to support the Nov. 3 general election in several capacities. The missions range from assisting with cyber defense, working the polls, and standing-by in case of post-election civil unrest.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges necessitating the use of Guard personnel to support the election, as have concerns about foreign actors attempting to disrupt the election through cyber attacks, explained senior Guard officials from Nebraska, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
The National Guard is unlikely to federalize in support of the election, said the senior Guard officials. “There would be no added benefit of federalizing Guard forces [for the election],” explained Army Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Tennessee’s adjutant general. “I cannot think of any scenario where we would recommend or ask for being federalized.”
At least 2,041 Guard troops have been committed to the effort. The size of the authorized deployments ranges from 1,000 in Texas to a single soldier in Wyoming. Some states are yet to determine how many troops will be activated, and many states have merely alerted selected units in anticipation of possible post-election unrest.
“Being a poll worker is something that’s new to the Wisconsin National Guard," said Army Brig. Gen. Robyn Blader, assistant adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard. "However, serving our state during times of need is one of our core missions, and that isn’t new. Our service members continue to answer the call, and they continue to be willing to serve their state and nation in times of need.”
Here’s the rundown of which states have activated the Guard and their missions.
Military Times staff will update this page with more information as it becomes available.
The Alabama National Guard currently has around 300 troops on alert — though not yet activated — to fulfill the routine National Guard Regional Response mission for the eastern part of the country. The NGRR is a readiness mission ensuring that the Guard is prepared to rapidly deploy forces anywhere in the nation in the event of civil unrest requiring additional law enforcement or security support.
The NGRR mission exists independent of election security, emphasized defense officials, though NGRR forces will rapidly respond in the case of any post-election unrest necessitating their support through the Emergency Managements Assistance Compact. EMAC is a mutual aid compact signed by state governors across the country that provides a legal framework for Guardsmen to assist in other states on a request-for-assistance basis while remaining under state control, as opposed to federal control.
“The Alabama National Guard has been selected to support the National Guard Regional Response Unit effort,” said a statement provided by the Alabama Guard. “These National Guard members work in cooperation with local law enforcement in a supporting role.”
The statement noted that Alabama had the military police and airlift capacity necessary to respond quickly, wherever needed.
“When people see the National Guard, they know we’re here to help,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief. “Our goal is to protect the people and property in the communities where we live and serve.”
The statement said that if called upon, their duties could include “point and area security, manning traffic control points, directing foot traffic, providing security and escort for emergency personnel and equipment, and transporting law enforcement personnel.”
Arizona is fulfilling the NGRR mission for the western portion of the country, according to Arizona National Guard officials. They have approximately 300 soldiers on alert, though they are not currently activated.
There is a “strong distinction between election security support and the [Rapid Response Force] support to law enforcement,” said Maj. Kyle Key, a spokesman for the Arizona National Guard, in an email to Military Times.
Arizona’s NGRR troops would respond to mass civil unrest after the election should another state’s governor request the force, though.
“If [the rapid response troops are] requested through an EMAC agreement, the Arizona National Guard is ready to respond when needed,” said Key.
“This type of agreement is not election day-related,” said Patrick Ptak, communications director for Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, to Military Times. “It simply allows the AZNG to stand ready if there is a request from another state, similar to the assistance Arizona provided to Wisconsin last month at the request of [Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers].”
Up to 10 members of the Colorado National Guard Defensive Cyber Operations Element were activated “to assist with election cyber security defense efforts during the 2020 Presidential election” by an Oct. 19 executive order from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
The order explained that the troops will be protecting the state’s online voter registration system in order to prevent hackers from suppressing voter registration.
“Their mission will be similar to past support” for election security, Staff Sgt. Joseph Vonnida, a Colorado National Guard public affairs staffer, told Military Times.
During the primary election, the Colorado Guard assisted the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office and the state’s Office of Information Technology “in network monitoring during the elections to prevent cyber-attacks,” according to a June press release.
The authorization will expire on Nov. 4, the day after the election.
An Oct. 15 executive order from Delaware Gov. John Carney activated the state’s Cyberspace Operations Squadron in order to assist with election cybersecurity.
The state’s public affairs director, Bernie Kale, told Delaware Public Media that around 20 Air National Guard troops would join the state’s Department of Technology and Information to help with cybersecurity threat modeling and planning.
The guardsmen will hunt for vulnerabilities in the state’s election systems from an end user’s point of view, according to a Delaware Public Media interview with Jason Clarke, acting chief information officer at the Delaware Department of Information Technology.
Carney, the governor, stated in his order that he activated the Guard because “Delaware and other states across the country were targeted by international actors in attempted cyber attacks” in 2016.
The Illinois National Guard has provided 40 cybersecurity specialists to the Illinois Board of Elections in order to assist with network defense, according to Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the Illinois Guard.
The Kentucky National Guard will provide 280 troops to assist local officials at the polls across the state on Nov. 3, according to a media release.
The troops will be in civilian clothes, and they will provide administrative and logistics support to polling sites in 38 counties, to include “setting up and cleaning polling locations and assisting with traffic, parking, and crowd control,” according to the release.
The release stated that guardsmen will not be acting as law enforcement, nor will they “perform any duties reserved for trained election officials, to include handling ballots or screening voters to determine who can vote.”
The Kentucky Guard performed a similar function during the state’s primary election in June, responding to a request from the State Board of Elections for support.
Around 40 troops will assist election officials in Jefferson County, which consists of metropolitan Louisville, and the majority of the other 37 counties requiring support will receive between five and 15 guardsmen, explained state public affairs officer Maj. Stephen Martin in a Wednesday conversation with Military Times.
The New Jersey National Guard has activated around 240 troops to help 18 counties across the state process its increased volume of mail ballots through late November, according to spokesperson Lt. Col. Barbara Brown. The New Jersey Guard completed a similar mission in June, when more than 120 troops deployed to assist county election boards.
County and state election officials requested assistance from the Guard because of a shortage of traditional poll workers created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown explained. The staffing shortage combined with an increase in mail-in ballots – due to the state going fully vote-by-mail for the election – to create a potential processing backlog that the New Jersey Guard could help resolve.
The Guard personnel will be in civilian clothes, according to Brown. They will have limited interaction with the public, and in some counties they will work exclusively behind closed doors at the local boards of elections. Local officials will also train the troops as poll workers, she said.
“The National Guard is not there to influence the voting outcome,” said Brown to Military Times. She emphasized that the troops would not be doing any kind of security mission at the polls.
“Guard members...will primarily assist in processing vote-by-mail ballots, which will support the state in ensuring an efficient, fair and safe election process,” said Brown to NJ.com.
The Pennsylvania National Guard has activated around 15 members of its cyber defense team to assist the Pennsylvania Department of State in maintaining cybersecurity for the election.
“The Pennsylvania National Guard is providing the same cyber support as it has in the past four elections, supporting the network,” said Army Lt. Col. Keith Hickox, a Pennsylvania Guard spokesman, in a phone interview with Military Times.
Last November, 30 Pennsylvania guardsmen supported the secretary of state’s office, but Hickox indicated that there was no change in the number of cyber operations-trained troops activated for this election.
Hickox added that the Guard’s ongoing response to civil unrest in Philadelphia connected to the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. is not related to the election.
The Tennessee National Guard has activated around 30 cybersecurity troops to support state and local elections officials with network security. The Tennessee National Guard is also making 13 of its readiness centers available as polling sites across the state, and approximately 26 troops in civilian clothes will be placed on state active duty in order to facilitate access for election officials, according to comments made by Holmes, the state’s adjutant general, during Wednesday’s media roundtable.
The armories' full time staffers will be instructed not to report to their offices on Election Day, said Holmes.
Holmes said that the decision to make the readiness centers available was driven by a “lack of space” for adequate social distancing in traditional polling sites in some of the state’s rural counties.
The Texas National Guard will activate up to 1,000 troops as early as this weekend in anticipation of possible civil disturbances following the election, reports the San Antonio Express News. They could be sent to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio, according to comments given to the Express News by Texas Guard spokesman Brandon Jones.
Jones told the Express News that the Texas guardsmen are not “going anywhere near polling locations,” and that they are “going to guard [government] buildings just like we did during the George Floyd protests earlier this year.”
“The Texas Military Department was activated to provide additional support to the Department of Public Safety in the summer of 2020,” explained Texas Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris in a statement to local media, including Houston Public Media. “Texas Service Members continue to support DPS in this capacity, guarding historical landmarks such as the Alamo and the State Capitol. To be clear, there has been no request nor any plan to provide any type of support at any polling location in Texas.”
“The National Guard will play no roles whatsoever in the election process," said Texas Governor Greg Abbott in a statement to local media. “They will not be at polls or anything like that.”
Local officials in those cities who spoke with the Express News, the Dallas Morning News, and the Texas Tribune emphasized that they had not yet requested any assistance from the Guard.
Virginia National Guard officials initially provided Military Times a statement saying that “additional VNG personnel will be on duty,” but have since clarified that the original statement was in error.
“The VNG will have about 10 full-time personnel focused on maintaining situational awareness at the VNG Joint Operations Center as well as with key state agencies,” said Alfred “Cotton” Puryear, the Virginia Guard’s chief of public affairs. “VNG personnel previously conducted state cyber vulnerability assessments, and cyber support could be provided if needed.”
The Washington National Guard is supporting the state’s election operations by contributing nine troops to help defend against possible cyber intrusions.
“We are very geographically blessed with cyber talent in our state’s National Guard,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh, assistant adjutant general for the Washington National Guard, during the Wednesday media roundtable. “We’re able to use that…capability really well to focus on the election. Washington is a state that has voted by mail for over a decade now, and certainly that IT systems that underpin that are of interest to many right now.”
Welsh indicated that the partnership with state elections officials has been ongoing for about a year.
The Wisconsin National Guard will support the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Election Day by providing 400 troops to work the polls.
“The extent of the Wisconsin National Guard’s role in the November election is still being determined this week,” said Blader, assistant adjutant general for the Wisconsin Guard, during the Wednesday media roundtable. “The county [elections] clerks across the state will let their needs — as far as polling worker shortages go — known to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and then the WEC will then make a request through our state emergency operations center.”
On Thursday, the scale of Wisconsin’s Nov. 3 response became more clear.
The state anticipates a poll worker shortage of approximately 200, according to Wisconsin Elections Commission leader Meagan Wolf. She described the smaller-than-anticipated shortage as “fantastic news” to the Associated Press.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has activated 400 members of the Wisconsin National Guard to fill the shortage, according to a Thursday press release.
The troops working the polls will be “neighbors helping neighbors,” and they will be in civilian clothes, emphasized Blader.
Their duties will be similar to those they held during the three elections the Wisconsin Guard has supported since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, spokesman Maj. Joseph Trovato told Military Times.
In April, around 2,400 troops in civilian clothes filled in as poll workers in 70 Wisconsin counties due to a critical shortage of volunteers. Wisconsin law allows state employees — including Wisconsin guardsmen on state active duty orders — to serve as poll workers in their counties of residence.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission provided specialized poll worker training to the troops ahead of each election, and Blader indicated that the same will occur before the November election.
A special election in May necessitated 160 guardsmen, and another 700 troops assisted in the state’s August presidential primary.
The Wyoming National Guard has activated one soldier to assist with election cybersecurity on Nov. 3, said Wyoming Military Department public affairs officer Rusty Ridley to Military Times.
The soldier will join the Wyoming Enterprise Technology Service, which oversees the state’s computer networks. Ridley said the cybersecurity specialist will help ETS to identify network vulnerabilities and keep state networks secure and operational throughout the election.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.