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How Is Law Enforcement Preparing For Potential Election Violence?


On the commercial strips in some American cities, little signs of tension have appeared this week. Shop managers in Washington, D.C., and a few other places boarded up windows just in case of election violence. Of course, nobody knows that anything will happen. In the swing state of Wisconsin, the state attorney general is hoping for a boring Election Day. But Josh Kaul, our next guest, says he's ready if it's not boring.

Kaul is a Democrat. His state faced protests and shootings in Kenosha this past summer and is a hard-fought state now. He's one of 36 state attorneys general from both parties who signed a bipartisan statement on elections. They committed to ensuring every eligible person can vote and that every vote is counted.

JOSH KAUL: Voter intimidation is a crime in Wisconsin. If you use force or threaten to use force to prevent somebody from voting or if you put somebody in a state of duress to prevent them from voting, that's a felony. And if people commit that crime, they should be prepared to be investigated and to spend time behind bars.

INSKEEP: I'm getting the impression that if a group of people were standing in a particular way outside of a polling place so that voters felt like they had to run a gauntlet to get in there, that is something that you have the power to stop.

KAUL: That's right. You know, any voter-intimidation case would depend on the specific facts of the incident. But if, you know, a group of people is standing, attempting to be imposing and putting fear in voters, that does cross the line. And people should expect a law enforcement response if that happens.

INSKEEP: Have you discussed, among law enforcement agencies, the possibility of worse disruptions?

KAUL: We do a few different things to prepare for potentially worse disruptions. One is we staff the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center, which shares information among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. And if there is a threat to the safety or security of Wisconsinites, that agency gets the information to the other relevant agencies in Wisconsin. And if there were a concentrated effort to interfere with the election, whether by a foreign actor or by a group in the United States, they would take action.

INSKEEP: Has your intelligence gathering network brought back any information about threats of violence on Election Day or afterward?

KAUL: In terms of violent threats, there aren't any specific threats that I'm aware of in the state of Wisconsin. But if we do become aware of those threats, we would contact the relevant law enforcement agencies and take action.

INSKEEP: And are you confident that law enforcement agencies in your state, in this circumstance where everybody in the country, it seems, is being asked or told to choose sides, that they will be impartial and enforce the law fairly for everyone?

KAUL: I am confident about that. We, you know, this election, having a free and fair election is vital to our democratic process. And if anybody intimidates voters, they're not only committing a crime, they are attacking fair elections.

INSKEEP: The president has publicly urged his supporters to go to the polls and watch for what, he says, would be fraud. What advice would you give to his supporters who want to follow that direction? And what advice do you give to everybody else?

KAUL: Well, first, it's important to note that the president's statements about fraud are just totally false. Fraud is extremely rare. And in Wisconsin, our system has been tested repeatedly. We also have open and transparent elections in the state. And people are able to go to the polls and observe the process. What's critical is that word observe.

People can observe what's going on when they're there as observers, but what they cannot do is be participants in the process when they're observing. They can't interfere with voters. They can't disrupt the process. And if they do, election officials around the state are being informed that they have the option, then, to remove those folks from polling places.

INSKEEP: I'm curious, having voted in the past in, I don't know, school gymnasiums, community centers - if you showed up at a polling place and wanted to observe in Wisconsin, where can you stand? Can you look over my shoulder, across the room, outside the building? What?

KAUL: There are designated areas in polling places in Wisconsin where the observers can stand, and those will be marked out at each polling place. There's some distance required between where the observers stand and where the voters check in and where the process happens. But there is an orderly process. And not only are there people who just decide on their own to observe, but there are, you know, a variety of organizations that are regularly involved in observing the election process - nonpartisan organizations, for example.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about the federal aspect of this. Of course, the Justice Department oversees the FBI, who you mentioned. William Barr, the attorney general of the United States, has mentioned mail-in ballot fraud. The issue that you just pointed out correctly is completely false and unfounded. It's exceedingly rare. And it's hard to figure out how it would work. But Barr has said, including in an interview on this program, that it seems obvious that it could happen. Do you have confidence that Attorney General Barr will play his role in this election in a fair and impartial and reality-based way?

KAUL: Well, I have no confidence in Attorney General Barr. He's made false statements, including this false statement about mail-in ballots when the reality is that we've had mail-in balloting for multiple elections, and that process has worked out well.

What I do have confidence in is the people who work at federal agencies across the country who are not partisan and haven't approached the job the way that AG Barr has, but are committed to keeping our communities safe and protecting fair elections. And so we've had an effective working relationship with federal agencies in Wisconsin and agencies that work in other states as well. And I expect that cooperative relationship to continue.

INSKEEP: What would you say to Americans who think about the post-election period and fear violence, that whoever's side loses, somebody there might not accept it and might resort to extreme acts?

KAUL: It's important to note that we have a fair and transparent process in place. So the results that we get will be the results that reflect the will of the voters. It is absolutely people's right to peacefully protest those results. They can protest the process itself. But what is unacceptable is for people to engage in violence or destruction or to attempt to intimidate voters or election officials because once people have crossed that line, they're, then, trying to prevent a fair outcome to this election.

As I mentioned, there are discussions going on to make sure that our polling places are safe on Election Day. We're also prepared for the possibility of unrest in the wake of the election. But, you know, I encourage people to, if they want to have their voices heard, to do so peacefully. And it's important that they know that they can have confidence that we're going to fight to make sure every vote is counted.

INSKEEP: Attorney General Josh Kaul of Wisconsin, thank you very much.

KAUL: Thanks for having me, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.