As residents cast their in-person ballots on an Election Day fraught with tension, a Madison non-profit organization enlisted the help of "Election Defenders" at polling sites across the city to protect and empower voters.
Freedom, Inc., which engages in a variety of social justice campaigns with low-income citizens and communities of color, trained and sent out the defenders to over 30 polling sites in Madison to monitor and attend to instances of voter intimidation and assist with other issues like inaccessible conditions for people with disabilities. The Election Defenders specifically embedded themselves in communities home to voters a part of marginalized groups.
Sporting bright yellow vests, the Election Defenders could be found at polling sites such as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Mendota Elementary School and Badger Rock Middle School.
“We try to spread out in Black and Southeast Asian and low-income communities to make our folks feel safe and that it was a welcoming space, but also to assert our right to participate in the electoral process,” said Freedom, Inc. Community Power Building Coordinator Mahnker Dahnweih.
The nonprofit works extensively within these communities to identify causes and develop measures to put an end to violence, racism and poverty that affect them.
According to a pre-election report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, Wisconsin was listed as one of five states that would be most prone to electoral violence.
In response to the threat, the Madison Police Department said it would increase its presence in order to respond to potential demonstrations that could turn violent during Election Day or people carrying firearms at or around polling places.
“We always provide officers with some pre-Election Day briefing/information,” Acting Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl said in an email to the Cap Times. “Given the current climate our staffing and preparation is greater than prior election years.”
However, Freedom, Inc. believed the police could not faithfully protect voters from potential electoral violence and opted to use the Election Defenders as an additional means of protection.
In anticipation of record turnout, particularly within the Black community, the non-profit prepared for Election Day under the assumption potential violence against Black voters could erupt against them following months of progress the community made in grassroots activism.
“When there is Black resistance and power building, there is white backlash,” Dahnweih said.
In anticipation of potential voter harassment and intimidation, Freedom, Inc. issued a warning to its constituents and the Madison community at-large on Monday before the election. The warning accentuated the importance of voting and accused the police and conservative-leaning groups of promoting a white supremacist culture that negatively impacts the experiences of marginalized groups.
“Tomorrow is one of the most important days of our lives,” the press release said. “We will show them that we are stronger together, and that they cannot intimidate us into silence.”
To avoid potential accusations of electioneering or fraud, Freedom, Inc. consulted with the Madison City Clerk’s Office and other city authorities to ensure the defenders understood and would adhere to election rules. Defenders also completed training to learn how to maintain safety and de-escalate situations that could arise at the polls.
Dahnweih says there were a few instances of voter intimidation that took place throughout the day. A group who identified themselves as “police defenders” stationed themselves at the Town of Madison Town Hall. Otherwise, disturbances throughout the day seemed to be perpetrated by random individuals who were not affiliated with a group.
Incidents were reported to Freedom, Inc.’s national partners, such as Rising Majority and The Frontline who will further investigate before details are released to the community.
As the results of the election remain uncertain, Freedom, Inc. held a rally Wednesday at the State Capitol to demand that every ballot cast be counted.