Wisconsin Watch is a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on government integrity and quality of life issues. Sign up for our newsletter for more stories and updates straight to your inbox.This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access.
Nora Eckert from Wisconsin Watch spoke to Wisconsin’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul about the state law that bars voter intimidation, what to watch for when it comes to election observers and reports about possible militia activity on Election Day.
What qualifies as voter intimidation? What are the penalties?
Kaul: So first, it’s important for people to know that voter intimidation is a felony in Wisconsin. Voter intimidation is using force or threatening to use force to prevent somebody from voting, or putting somebody in a state of duress to prevent them from voting. If somebody commits that crime, it’s a Class I felony, and it’s a crime that not only is a felony, but one that is an attack on our democracy. And so we take it extremely seriously. And if anybody engages in that conduct, they should expect to be investigated and to spend time behind bars.
If a voter feels intimidated at a polling place, what should they do?
Kaul: There are two people who they should contact if they’re feeling intimidated. First, we ask that they contact the election inspectors, the people who are working at the polling place where the incident is occurring. They have a lot of authority under state law to make sure that the voting process is happening in an orderly fashion, and that there are no disruptions or interference with that process. And then secondly, we ask people to contact local law enforcement so that there can be an appropriate law enforcement response to any issues of voter intimidation.
At what point do the police step in for disputes like this?
Kaul: The election inspectors have a lot of discretion in terms of how they approach the situation, and they receive guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission about how best to handle those situations. They are empowered to order somebody to be removed from a polling place, if somebody is causing a disruption or an interference with the process. And they can contact law enforcement themselves and ask for enforcement to assist with the response if they think that that would be helpful.
Can voters respond directly to someone who is harassing them at the polls?
Kaul: I would strongly advise against having any sort of direct contact with somebody who’s engaging in intimidating behavior, and instead to contact the election inspectors and law enforcement. They’re trained in how to respond to those sorts of situations and will make sure that they get addressed swiftly and that the voting process is interfered with as little as possible.
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What about guns at polling places? How does that play into the issue of voter intimidation?
Kaul: So first, there’s no statewide rule in Wisconsin that prohibits firearms at polling places. The Legislature hasn’t passed a law on that and the Elections Commission hasn’t adopted a rule either, but there are a lot of polling places in locations where firearms are prohibited. We have gun-free school zones. When polling places are located in schools, firearms can’t be brought in there. Also at private locations or government buildings where there’s a posted sign indicating that firearms can’t be brought in, firearms are prohibited in that circumstance as well. In other locations, where there is no prohibition, even there the rules against voter intimidation still apply. So if somebody is using a firearm to intimidate somebody, or to disrupt the process or interfere with it, that is not permitted. And in those circumstances, the election inspectors or the local law enforcement are still empowered to take appropriate action.
President Trump has called for his supporters to be poll watchers on Election Day, citing concerns about election integrity. What can poll watchers or election observers do? What can’t they do?
Kaul: First, it’s important to note that the president has falsely suggested that there’s widespread fraud in our system. And in fact, what our system in Wisconsin has shown, having been tested repeatedly, including through a statewide recount in the 2016 presidential election, with audits conducted after elections, and with a lot of close elections, you know, what we have seen is that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. Now, that being said, if people want to go observe what’s going on at the polls, they’re entitled to do that in Wisconsin. We have open, transparent elections. And one of the things that allows for those open and transparent elections is rules that permit people to observe that. If they go to the polls, there’s a process that observers need to follow. And they’ll have a designated area where they can observe the process. But what’s critical is that they are, in fact, observers, and they don’t insert themselves into the voting process, by interfering with it or disrupting it. That’s the job of the election officials where they’re working at the polling places.
Wisconsin has been identified by some reports as a state where there is a greater likelihood of militia activity around the election. What actions is the state Department of Justice taking around this, and do you see it as a threat to voter turnout?
Kaul: So first up, just speaking generally, I am very confident that people are going to be able to vote safely, and that we will have a free and fair election, that every lawfully cast ballot will be counted, and that the results we’re going to see will reflect the will of the voters in this election. But we are taking steps to prepare so that if an issue does arise, we can respond quickly. One of the things we do is staff the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center, which is staffed by DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation. And they share information among federal, state and local law enforcement regarding threats to the safety and security of Wisconsinites. And that would include any threats to the safety of the election. So if there were some sort of organized effort to try to disrupt voting, you know, hopefully, that’s something that they would identify — and they would respond appropriately — likely by contacting local law enforcement. We don’t have any specific information regarding any militia effort to interfere with the voting process, but if we do become aware of that, we will respond swiftly.[ad number=”1″]