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Capital City Sunday: Voter intimidation, early voting turnout & testing efforts on UW campuses

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin is gearing up for another unprecedented election held during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local and state election officials are working overtime to ensure the safety and efficiency of our voting process. On top of their efforts, local clerks are also training for the possibility of armed groups showing up at polling places.

The city of Madison and other municipalities are preparing in case groups attempt to intimidate voters before they cast a ballot. Local law enforcement is also being told there's a high possibility militia groups will have a presence on election day.

Attorney General Josh Kaul says the Wisconsin Department of Justice continues to work with the state election commission and other agencies to respond to threats or voter intimidation.

When asked what the threshold is to determine someone is intimidating voters, Kaul said any efforts to intimidate voters “no matter what shape” is a crime.

“If someone is standing in front of a polling place with a long gun and they are loitering and only have intentions of scaring voters, at that point they have crossed the line and prosecution and may follow,” said Kaul.

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 at least 50,000 volunteers to observe and monitor voting in battleground states. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen but there’s been a lot of charged rhetoric in the campaign and there are heightened tensions around the county but preparing for this is very important,” said Kaul.

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, ask for IDs, take photos or videos and hand out campaign materials.

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

Early Voting, Preparations for Election Day

Early-voting counts suggest a record level of participation before election day in Wisconsin. The tens of thousands of ballots already cast show voters are making sure their votes are counted amid a pandemic.

On the first day of in-person voting, more than 75,000 people cast a ballot in Wisconsin. That's on top of more than 1.1 million who have already returned their absentee ballot. 

Fork Atkinson’s City Clerk Michelle Ebbert said they had a tremendous turnout the first week of early voting without long lines. 

“There was a lot of patience and even with the slowdown with the voter registration system, it was not a problem,” said Ebbert.

State and local election officials are seeing an influx of calls from voters who no longer want to cast a ballot by mail and instead want to vote in-person. 

This week, the Wisconsin Election Commission issued a memo on their website with guidelines on how to field these calls in which voters request to “spoil their ballot” for a variety of reasons. 

“Issues include damaged ballots, making an error when voting the ballot (such as filling in the wrong circle or voting for too many candidates), or voters changing their mind after returning their absentee ballots,” the memo reads.

Ebbert said she’s also had a few calls from voters asking if they can come in person even if they received their absentee ballot. Election officials are reminding people if they change their minds they still have to bring their ballot.

“We really need them to use that ballot and if they want to vote in-person and don’t bring that ballot we ask that they go home to get it,” said Ebbert.

Another concern she says is many people registered online to get an absentee ballot for all future elections after April’s primary, many not knowing they chose that option.

“It’s a concern because voters didn’t really know when they chose that option they get a ballot in the mail for every election until you request us to stop sending them.”

Some municipalities will also have to pull all-nighters to process thousands of absentee ballots because the state currently only allows clerks to start processing them on election day.

State elections officials say local clerks are also making sure they have the resources to get their unofficial results done as soon as possible on election night, but they will not sacrifice accuracy for speed.

UW-Platteville Mitigation Efforts

Coronavirus cases spiked just a week into the start of classes at UW campuses and many fear that could happen again this winter. For now, many campuses are seeing cases drop significantly compared to the start of the school year.

UW-Platteville is one of those experiencing a decline in the number of positive cases on campus. For nearly a month, the campus has had fewer than eight positive cases for consecutive days. 

Paul Erickson, UW-Platteville’s public information officer said a big part of the decline is due to a culture change. 

“We have this culture of respect around campus, all of our students before they received their textbooks had to sign a pioneer promise to look out for each other and know you are responsible for your own actions, but also you are protecting your classmates and staff,” said Erickson. 

A few weeks ago Grant County, where UW-Platteville is located, was considered one of the top areas of the country to have the greatest number of new cases based on population. That’s not the case anymore, but Erickson believes mitigation efforts such as self-isolation centers on campus and testing students and staff regularly have helped reduce community spread.

“We have a great partnership with Grant County officials and the city of Platteville and we met weekly to see how things are going.”

As the fall semester wraps up, a concern for all UW campuses is students gathering indoors as the weather gets colder and Halloween is just around the corner. 

“We know this is a big step coming up and we need to remain vigilant to get to November break when we do move to online learning.”

UW-Platteville will shift to an all-virtual school year starting after Thanksgiving break. 

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Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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