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‘Good chance there will be Militia’ — Clerks, law enforcement prepare for voter intimidation

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A group of armed protesters during April's Reopen Wisconsin rally at the State Capitol

MADISON (WKOW) -- Local law enforcement and election clerks are preparing for possible disruptions on election day: Militia groups showing up at polling places to intimidate voters.

For months, officials have been preparing for election day as the coronavirus pandemic dominates their planning, but now police and local clerks are training for the possible scenario of armed groups showing up at polling places on November 3.

Maribeth Witzel-Behl, the city of Madison clerk, said this week they launched training exercises to deal with these potential scenarios.

“There’s a whole team at the city level that is working on a response if we see scenarios pop up,” said Witzel-Behl.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said he’s been told through national training expos and meetings with law enforcement groups, Wisconsin should be prepared for Militia groups on election day. 

“We’re being told there’s a good chance there will be Millta groups all across the country that are now empowered to protect the vote and that's not their responsibility,” said Mahoney.

Rounding up groups to meet at the polls on election day is gaining traction online. A website “Army for Trump”, paid for by the Trump campaign, is looking for 50,000 plus volunteers to observe and monitor voting in battleground states.

A Trump campaign spokesperson tells 27 News the idea of the group is to "ensuring the fairness of any election, and President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out," said Thea McDonald Trump campaign Deputy National Press Secretary.

While the idea is perfectly legal, law enforcement says they are concerned it could encourage the wrong type of crowds to show up and not be aware of the rules.

“Voter intimidation is illegal,” Attorney General Josh Kaul warned in press release. “If someone breaks the laws that protect against voter intimidation, they should be prepared to spend time behind bars.”

In Wisconsin, people can sign up to observe at polling locations but they have to follow strict guidelines and are not allowed to walk around and talk to voters. Instead, their role is to observe poll workers. 

Right now, there is nothing preventing armed groups from showing up at polling places but Dane County election officials and law enforcement are currently training to deal with these scenarios.

"We want to ensure everybody that comes out to vote, feels safe to do so,” said Mahoney. “That's why we are prepared, we have a plan."

While firearms are not banned at polling locations in Wisconsin, threats and intimidation are.

If you witness or are subject to voter intimidation, alert an election official right away or call local law enforcement.

Examples of voter intimidation could include:

  • Brandishing or displaying firearms in an intimidating or threatening manner in or near a polling place;
  • Engaging in disorderly behavior in or near a polling place; or
  • Preventing access to a polling place by making threats or engaging in intimidating behavior.

Additionally, the Wisconsin Department of Justice notes it is illegal for private groups to conduct law enforcement or military activities under state and federal law.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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