MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul vowed to aggressively prosecute anyone who attacks or harasses election workers in the key swing state this fall and proclaimed his faith in the state's election system as clerks report rising concerns about potential threats due to misinformation about elections.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press this week, Kaul also touted his work defending the results of the 2020 election against a host of legal challenges that accompanied President Donald Trump's lies about widespread election fraud.
Kaul, a Democrat seeking reelection in November against Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, said public trust in “the reality of our elections” is important.
“We have the world’s greatest democracy in the U.S. and it’s something we should be proud of," Kaul told the AP on Wednesday. "We have had that system tested over and over in Wisconsin through audits and recounts and reviews and consistently they show that our system works and the results reflect the will of the voters.”
Some of Trump's followers have lashed out as they refused to accept his loss to Joe Biden. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and and public policy institute, found in a March poll that one in six election officials have been threatened because of their job, with more than three-quarters saying they feel threats have increased in recent years.
In Wisconsin, multiple clerks have cited distrust and hostility toward election workers as concerns going into the November election. At a gathering of the National Association of State Elections Directors in July, election officials and bureaucrats meeting in Madison raised concerns that federal law might not be up to date with the threats they’ve faced since 2020.
Kaul said he is planning a public relations campaign informing people that intimidating, threatening or assaulting election workers is illegal and telling them how they can quickly report incidents. He said the Justice Department is working with the Wisconsin Elections Commission to stay abreast of any potential cases.
“What people should know is intimidating election officials is a crime and something we take very seriously,” Kaul said. “Continuing to get that message out is a proactive way to deter people from engaging in that activity. And if they do we will hold them accountable."
Kaul also questioned whether Toney would defend the 2024 election results in court if Trump runs again and loses Wisconsin. He noted that Toney has drawn support from former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who called for Biden's win to be decertified as part of an investigation into Wisconsin's 2020 results. The probe found found no evidence of election fraud.
“If he were to take that kind of approach it would create chaos," Kaul said. “I'm proud to have defended the will of the voters and our system of government. Based on what we've seen from (Toney), he hasn't shown that type of commitment."
Toney rejected Kaul's attack.
He told AP that he believes Biden won the presidency, but said state laws were broken during the election. He brought charges in February against five voters who allegedly used improper addresses and has called for removing five state election commissioners who voted to keep special voting assistants out of nursing homes early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toney promised to review any allegation of election fraud and prosecute “because it's the job of district attorneys and the attorney general to enforce the rule of law.”
Other key issues Kaul discussed in his AP interview:
— Abortion. Kaul filed a lawsuit this summer seeking to overturn Wisconsin's 1849 ban on abortion, arguing in part that it's so old it's no longer valid. Kaul said if that lawsuit is unsuccessful, he may file more lawsuits based on other legal theories such as equal protection and the fundamental right to liberty. He also maintained his pledge not to use state Justice Department resources to enforce the ban and promised to lobby legislators to repeal the prohibition.
— Pollution. Kaul sued 18 companies in July looking to hold them liable for polluting state waters with a group of chemicals known as PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. He promised to see that case through to its conclusion.
—Gun control. Kaul, like Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, has advocated for universal background checks and a red-flag law that would allow family members and police to ask judges to seize guns from people who might pose a threat. Republican leaders have refused to even debate those proposals. Kaul said he plans to keep pushing.
Associated Press writer Harm Venhuizen contributed to this report. Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.
Todd Richmond, The Associated Press