President Donald Trump trails former Vice President Joe Biden in Wisconsin by about five percentage points in most polls. The state holds 10 electoral votes that Trump won by a sliver in 2016, and many analysts see the state as a must-win for his re-election. While he’s been campaigning hard here in recent weeks — with another final rally set for Monday night in Kenosha — his campaign also has a back-up plan and has laid the groundwork to contest the validity of the results, and begun recruiting army of poll watchers that risks wreaking havoc on the voting process.
The possibility of armed violence led to the creation of a city-level team in Madison, according to Madison Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, who are all working to address possible scenarios where armed groups could show up to the polls. Many other law enforcement agencies nationwide are deciding to prepare as well, all in an effort to protect the legitimacy of the election.
“There is concern of this type of activity, not only here, but around the county,” said Dane County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Elise Schaffer in a statement to Madison365. “We are prepared to respond to any threatening or violent activity. The Sheriff, along with our local election officials, want to ensure that anyone who goes to cast their vote, is able to do so in a safe environment.”
Acting Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl said in a statement to Madison365, “We always provide officers with some pre-election day briefing or information, but given the current climate our staffing and preparation is greater than prior election years.”
Firearms are not permitted inside polling places in Wisconsin, but enforcing firearms violations outside polling places will be done on a case-by-case basis, Wahl said. Though there is not a policy in place regarding when to intervene with any armed individuals at the polls, Wahl says that the city is preparing in regular meetings for those scenarios.
The Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, recently released a warning against voter intimidation, warning that it is illegal for private groups to perform law enforcement activity at the polls, or interfere with voting in any way. Wahl says anyone who observes behavior that could be construed as voter intimidation should call the police.
Examples of voter intimidation might include:
- Verbal threats of violence,
- Intimidating display of firearms,
- Disrupting voting lines or blocking entrances,
- Aggressively approaching voters’ cars
- Following voters to, from, or within polling places,
- Directly and aggressively challenging voters’ qualifications
But President Trump‘s campaign has continued to sow doubt amongst his supporters in the upcoming voting process. Trump has said himself at previous rallies that any outcome besides a Trump victory will be the result of illegal election-rigging.
His campaign is currently asking supporters in swing states to enlist as an election-day poll watcher on the website “Army for Trump.” A Trump campaign spokesperson said the intent was to identify “Democrat rule-breaking,” according to 27 News.
His rhetoric may be having a dissuasive effect on Wisconsin voters’ perceptions about the fairness of the election. According to a recent Marquette University poll, only 14 percent of likely Republican voters were very confident that all votes would be counted, compared to 39 percent of likely Democratic voters.
It is unclear whether turnout will be affected by Trump’s rhetoric of distrust, or if it will draw out armed “poll-watchers,” to cities in Wisconsin.
At the national level, some on the far right are promising an armed presence at polling places. On Wednesday, for example, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath-Keepers militia, which is comprised of current and former law enforcement officers, said his members will be at polling locations on Election Day to “protect” Trump voters. The pledge came during an appearance on far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ program, as reported by Media Matters.
In a statement to Madison365, self-styled militia leader and founder of thefreemenreport.com Thomas Leager, who has organized previous pro-gun rallies in Madison, and argues that the United States is in a full-blown Civil War, said, “there’s no armed protests or anything like that planned. At least, not by anybody I know.”
“We’ve received intel that ANTIFA and BLM are planning to target and purge conservatives and constitutionalists within their blue strongholds,” Leager said. “So, we have safe locations ready to help innocent people fleeing possible unrest and political violence in Blue areas. … So, as far as the Constitutionalist Movement goes, we will be standing down, observing, and praying that we as a country do not devolve into a Bosnia like situation.”
State capitals and periphery towns, “with centralized zones — such as parks, main streets, and plazas — also serve as locations of major gravitational pull,” for potential election-time violence, according to the The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. In the report, researchers noted that Wisconsin has seen ongoing militias activities, like training and recruitment events.
Kenosha, Wisconsin became the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement for a time in August after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, seven times in the back, which was caught on video.
The protests that followed attracted scores of heavily-armed militiamen, including 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who drove from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, where he shot three people, killing two, during a protest. Rittenhouse will face intentional homicide charges in Wisconsin, after a judge ruled he would be extradited from his custody in Lake County, Illinois.
The night before the Rittenhouse shooting, armed groups were patrolling demonstrations in downtown Madison, too, according to the ACLED, and were photographed confronting demonstrators about burning dumpsters during the night.
As the march moves, a couple of protesters started pushing this dumpster w a fire in it down Hamilton. The armed group pretty quickly intervened.
Members from the two groups are arguing now, with at least one man trying to separate them and keep the peace. pic.twitter.com/Y7zFtSExIZ
— Will Cioci (@wjcioci) August 25, 2020
When contacted by Madison365, Chief Wahl said that he was “not aware of any information or intelligence related to protests, threats, or other problems related to the election in Madison.”