Democracy Under Attack: Confronting Mounting Threats to US Election Workers

September 22, 2022 | 8:47 am
people in line to voteOmari Spears/UCS
Derrick Z. Jackson

Even as this month brought more convictions for rioters in last year’s US Capitol insurrection and dozens more Justice Department subpoenas in its probe of the attempt to overturn of the 2020 presidential election, democracy is still being stormed all across the nation.

With a month and a half to go before general elections that will determine the balance of power in Congress and which party controls the election apparatus in states bitterly divided along racial and ideological lines, an uncivil and too-often ignored war is threatening to turn US poll workers into an endangered species. The Justice Department last month disclosed its accounting of more than 1,000 threats to election officials in the past year, with more than 100 of them meeting the threshold for a federal criminal investigation. More than half of the potentially criminal threats were in highly contested states where allies of ousted President Trump tried to overturn the results, such as in Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

Election officials’ top concern: violence

Last week, CBS News reported that Kim Wyman, head of the election division at the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said that as many as one-third of all poll workers have left their posts because they felt this signature duty in democracy was not worth their personal safety or life. Calling the threats “unnerving,” Wyman welled up as she said some of the threats included being hung or shot in the head. She said a major “commonality” for the most intense threats “seems to be states where Trump did not prevail.”

Wyman, who was Washington State’s secretary of state for nearly a decade before coming to the Biden administration and who served as a country elections director for a decade before that, last month told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I’ve been in this profession for 30 years and I’ve never seen this level of ‘feedback,’ if you will, about an election this far after an election, that is targeting election officials in the way that it has been since 2020.”

Last month brought fresh examples of the ‘feedback’ from supporters of the former president who bought into his lies that the election was stolen and that elections officials were derelict, crooked or both. The targeting of them occurred even in Gillespie County, Texas, 90 minutes west of Austin, where Donald Trump beat President Joe Biden by nearly a 4-to-1 margin. Even there, harassment by Trump supporters resulted in all three of the county’s elections administrators resigning.

The head of elections, Anissa Herrera, told the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post, the local newspaper in the county seat: “I was threatened, I’ve been stalked, I’ve been called out on social media. And it’s just dangerous misinformation.” Gillespie County Judge Mark Stroeher told the same newspaper that “fanatical and radical” people are making elections “nasty” and “dangerous.”

Things are getting so nasty that CBS News and The New York Times recently reported that bulletproof glass, security cameras, fences, and vaults with fire-suppression systems are going up around or into election offices and tabulation centers in Colorado, Georgia, Arizona, California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Times highlighted the extra personal security details for Colorado’s and Michigan’s respective Secretaries of State, Jena Griswold and Jocelyn Benson.

In June, a man pled guilty to federal charges for repeated threats to Griswold. She has faced many threats, including that of being hung. “In my experience, if someone is telling you over and over how they’re going to hang you, asking you the size of your neck so they can cut the rope right, you have to take the threats really seriously,” Griswold told the Times.

Benson’s home was surrounded by armed election deniers after the 2020 election. She recently told NBC’s “Face the Nation” that her top worry for the upcoming elections is “Violence and disruption on election day, first and foremost, and in the days surrounding the election. And secondly, there’s a concern about the ongoing spread of misinformation which, of course, fuels the potential for additional threats, harassment and even violence on election day.”

Attacks take a toll

In Fulton County, Georgia, where Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani falsely and brazenly accused poll workers of vote tampering in the 2020 tabulations, there has not been a permanent director for elections for 10 months. The county, which includes Atlanta, is the most populous in Georgia with 1 million people. Former director Richard Barron told the Washington Post, “You have to have a thick skin, because you’re going to get attacked. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that you’re going to have a hostile secretary of state. You’re going to have a hostile board of commissioners, plus the legislature. So, the person that takes that job is going to have to be able to deal with that stress and pressure.”

The stress and the pressure for the poll workers was on display as well this summer in congressional testimony from the women Giuliani lied about. Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss were forced into hiding; election denying thugs even tried to force their way into the home of Moss’s grandmother. In videotaped testimony, Freeman said she does not introduce herself by name anymore. “There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” Freeman said. “Do you know how it feels to have the President of the United States target you? The President of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small-business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of a pandemic.”

Examples abound of the harassment of poll workers and elections officials across the country. Leslie Hoffman and Lynn Constabile, the two top elections officials in Yavapai County, Arizona, resigned because of threats from election deniers, even though Trump beat President Biden in the county 64 percent to 35 percent. Hoffman, a Republican, told a Phoenix radio station that Trump’s overwhelming victory made it, “very, very difficult to understand why now we are being scrutinized and accused of corruption and fraud and [told] ‘watch your back,’  ‘you better lawyer up,’—those  types of things. It’s a small majority of people but they’re very loud.”

She added to the Associated Press: “I’m not sure what they think that we did wrong…and they’re very nasty. The accusations and the threats are nasty.”

In New Mexico, harassment of poll workers in Santa Fe County primaries has resulted in trainings for elections staff on de-escalation and active shooter situations. The Associated Press reported that election workers there have requested the installation of bulletproof glass at their offices and the use of GPS tracking during the transportation of ballot boxes. “There’s a lot of anxiety and there’s a lot of high emotions,” Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark told an Albuquerque television station this month.

Imploring Congress for action

At last month’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on threats to election officials and poll workers, about 25 election officials offered oral and written testimony. Aaron Ammons, the county clerk for Champaign County, Illinois, has received death threats targeting his daughter. Heider Garcia, the elections administrator for Tarrant County, Texas, wrote that after his office’s tabulations gave President Biden a narrow victory in a reliably Republican county, social media messages said Garcia’s “lifeless body” should “hang in public until maggots drip out his mouth.”

Janice Winfrey, the city clerk of Detroit, said in the aftermath of the 2020 election and President Biden’s victory in Michigan (which Trump had won in 2016) someone in a Facebook message threatened to blow up her block. In another incident, a large man approached her in her neighborhood and berated her, “I’ve been waiting for you at work and decided to come by your house. Why did you cheat? . . .Why did you allow Trump to lose? You are going to pay dearly for your actions in this election!”

With such attacks on election leaders, it is little wonder that many clerks have had problems hiring poll workers. Hoffman of Yavapai County wrote to the Judiciary Committee, “We have had jobs posted for months with little to no applicants. When the job description entails anything about elections, most won’t apply.” In Shasta County, California, where Trump beat President Biden 65 percent to 32 percent, County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen said the increasing bullying of staffers and the aggressive encroachment of elections observers on elections since 2020 has deeply hurt morale in her office. When California held its June 7 primaries for governor, Allen told the Judiciary Committee, “we had more poll workers cancel or just plain not appear for work than we ever have had in my career.”

The plea for help from elections workers for all this to stop was summed up by Natalie Adona, clerk-elect for Nevada County, California. She told CBS News, “We need more consequences for bad behavior.”

But who administers the consequences? The lack of unified condemnation of threats to elections officials and poll workers and the absence of decisive action against threatening individuals and mobs amounts to—for now—a bipartisan failure.

Biden administration must do more

The US Department of Justice’s Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite, Jr., last month told the Judiciary Committee that the trauma to elections officials and poll workers is “profound and unprecedented.” President Biden, in his speech on democracy this month, cited the intimidation and death threats to election officials and poll workers and proclaimed, “I will not stand by and watch the most fundamental freedom in this country, the freedom to vote and have your vote counted, be taken from you and the American people.”

But the Biden administration’s Justice Department has yet to engage in a significant level of prosecution. It has obtained just one conviction so far from the 1,000 threats and made only a few other charges. And it is unclear how many more convictions can be obtained because legal experts say it is a very high bar to separate free speech from imminent mortal threats.

In addition, financial support from the Justice Department for election security for poll workers and elections officials has come under criticism. CBS News and States Newsroom recently reported that the agency has disbursed few or no funds under a justice assistant grant program it said was available for election boards to protect election facilities and staff. The Biden administration should step up this funding effort, and quickly.    

Of course, the Biden administration is getting little help from across the political aisle. At the Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Protecting Democracy’s Frontline Workers,” for example, ranking member Charles Grassley of Iowa failed to offer a single idea for protecting them. Instead, he spent virtually his entire opening statement bemoaning violent crime, attacks on police and the “failed polices of Democratic cities.”

Frustration with this level of inaction permeated the testimonies before the Judiciary Committee. Scott Konopasek, former director of elections for Fairfax County, Virginia, described how personal threats were not taken seriously by local law enforcement and how federal law enforcement told him he should go back to local law enforcement. “The lack of concern and follow up made me feel foolish and silly and less willing to share further threats,” Konopasek wrote. “. . .Threats and threatening behavior do not have to involve violence or bodily harm before they have an effect on an individual, a staff and the effective conduct of elections.”  

Wildly varied state action

Then there is the state-by-state crazy quilt of concern, indifference and hostility over the safety of elections officials. The more liberal states of California, Colorado, Maine, Vermont and Oregon have enacted laws to criminalize the harassment of elections workers and the posting the personal information of election workers. More conservative Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are going in the opposite direction: passing laws likely to make the lives of elections officials more miserable.

Those latter states, generally dominated by White conservatives in their legislatures, passed legislation this year that allows the partisan removal of elections officials, prosecution of supposed cases of voter fraud (of which there are vanishingly few) and prosecuting elections officials for simple mistakes, such as inadvertently accepting a noncitizen’s voter registration. The Brennan Center for Justice said the laws amount to “partisan actors” interfering with elections operations.

In Spalding County, Georgia, the new laws facilitated a purge that saw its elections board flip from a three-Black woman and Democratic majority to a three-White Republican majority. The new board eliminated early voting, a major tool in boosting Black turnout. Glenda Henley, a Black Democrat who quit Spalding’s election’s board over the brazen “coup” and harassment by Trump supporters, told Reuters, “I have never been afraid in this town, but I am now.”

Taking action

The level of fear currently on display from election workers across the country must be seen as an inferno threatening to scorch our democracy. Many of the election officials who testified to the Senate offered plenty of concrete ideas of how they can be better protected. Besides more expedient use of justice assistance grants, ideas include: new laws banning the sharing of private information of elections officials (known as “doxing”), public financial disclosure requirements for groups that claim voter fraud, and passage of the “Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act,” introduced in the House and Senate to implement prison sentences for anyone who threatens or harms an election worker.

With a major report last year saying that the nation needs at least $5.3 billion a year for the next decade to modernize and secure the nation’s election’s infrastructure, Jocelyn Benson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Congress should at least pass the $1 billion per year for the next decade that has been proposed by President Biden.

But New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver cautioned that even added resources and prosecutions, “will not put a stop to such threats until the rhetoric gets ratcheted down and elected officials, the media, political parties, and others find better ways to educate the public about the realities of how our elections are conducted and secured.”

That requires a bipartisan effort that puts election security over sore loser scapegoating of poll workers and county recorders and clerks. Natalie Adona bluntly told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “Election officials like me feel isolated, like no one has our backs. . . Elections infrastructure requires people who know how it functions and how to maintain it. I fear that if you do not act, there will not be an elections infrastructure to speak of.”

That should be enough of a warning for all of us to have their backs.