Election violence varies significantly within countries, yet how and why are undertheorized. Although existing scholarship has shown how national-level economic, institutional, and contextual factors increase a country’s risk for violence during elections, these studies cannot explain why elites organize election violence in some localities but not others. An analysis of gubernatorial elections in Nigeria reveals the conditions under which elites recruit popular social-movement actors for pre-election violence. Gubernatorial elections are intensely competitive when agreements between governors and local ruling party elites over the distribution of state patronage break down. To oust their rivals and consolidate power, elites recruit popular reformist groups for pre-election violence and voter mobilization. Conversely, when local ruling-party elites are aligned over how state patronage is to be distributed, the election outcome is agreed to well in advance. In this scenario, there is little incentive to enlist social movement actors for violence. Case studies of the Ijaw Youth Council and Boko Haram provide empirical support for the argument. The theory and evidence help explain subnational variation in election violence as well as the relationship between intraparty politics and violence during elections, and speak to broader questions about political order and violence.