Election officials preparing for worst-case scenarios: Violence around the midterms

Trump-inspired wave of threats against election officials raises midterm tensions as some workers simply quit

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 9, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

A voter fills out his ballot at the early voting location at the town hall in Quincy, MA on August 27, 2022. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A voter fills out his ballot at the early voting location at the town hall in Quincy, MA on August 27, 2022. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Election officials across the country are concerned with potential violence and other disruptions compromising this November's midterm elections. Some are even quitting their jobs as Donald Trump's allies continue to push out false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has made $8 million available for local clerks to bolster election security. More than 1,600 election clerks remain in constant fear for their safety, said Michigan Department of State spokesperson Angela Benander in a statement on Thursday. 

"I am concerned about people being disruptive," said Sommer Foster, co-executive director of Michigan Voices. "I'm concerned about people trying to intimidate voters. I'm concerned about dis- and misinformation. It's something that we see a lot in Michigan, and so we are doing what we can to make sure that we have systems in place to fight against that."

Foster, who works with partners on issues like election protection, voter suppression and educating voters about their rights, witnessed election clerks in 2020 being unfairly "maligned" and "attacked." The harassment was so stressful, Foster continued, that one former Republican election official in a suburb outside Detroit simply quit his job .

"It's a huge loss," Foster said. "This was somebody who was dedicated to making sure that voters had their rights protected. We are hearing incidents of clerks being called out by name [by] some of these folks that are still telling lies about the 2020 election."

Almost half (47%) of top elected and appointed local officials in Michigan reported being harassed in the last few years due to their position in local government, according to a University of Michigan survey.

Efforts by Trump allies to overturn the last presidential election have persisted, even close to two years after the fact, and false claims about the supposedly stolen election have created safety concerns for administrators across the country. One in six elec­tion offi­cials have exper­i­enced threats and 77% say that they feel those threats have increased in recent years, according to a Brennan Center poll released earlier this year. 

Death threats, racist and gender-based attacks are reportedly forcing election workers to hire personal security, leave their homes and in some cases even resign from their positions. 

In one rural Texas county, the entire elections staff quit just 70 days before the midterm elections, PBS reported. For the last 10 months, local leaders in Georgia's biggest county have been unable to hire a permanent director to run the Department of Registration and Elections. 

Following the 2020 election, Anissa Herrera, the elections administrator for Gillespie County, Texas, received a number of death threats from far-right sources against her staff, which led to numerous resignations.

Such experiences have become so commonplace that election clerks consider it a part of their job, said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas.

"These election administrators keep saying that they report things to law enforcement or local DAs and nothing happens, like nobody's being prosecuted," Gutierrez said. 

Common Cause, which does election protection work, is also looking at potential ways to hold people who attack election workers accountable. What has complicated that task, Gutierrez and others say, is that numerous people in leadership positions keep casting doubt on the way elections are administered. 

Last year, Texas Secretary of State John Scott claimed that a "full forensic audit" of the 2020 general election was necessary to restore Texas voters' trust in the state's election systems. (Trump easily carried the state.) Scott also briefly represented Trump in a legal challenge to the 2020 results in Pennsylvania.

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For an elected state official to embrace that narrative, Gutierrez said, "really perpetuates this feeling that the people running our elections are doing something wrong, or trying to rig the elections. Just naturally, that's going to create an environment where you're asking for some kind of violence to happen."

In many key battleground states, supporters of Trump's false election claims are running for secretary of state — a position that in most states gives them the power to oversee elections — and are continuing to sow doubt about the way elections are administered. 

Jim Marchant, the Republican secretary of state nominee in Nevada, has repeatedly claimed that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and has said he would not have certified its results if he were in office. Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, the GOP nominee for secretary of state has called for the arrest of incumbent Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, and has proposed giving the state legislature the power to accept or reject election results. In Colorado, Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters (a failed secretary of state candidate) is now under indictment on felony and misdemeanor charges related to tampering with voting equipment. And in Michigan, GOP candidate Kristina Karamo, a prominent election denier, signed onto a lawsuit in the Michigan Supreme Court challenging the 2020 election. (She also faces unrelated allegations by her ex-husband that she threatened to kill their entire family during an altercation.) 

Supporters of Trump's false election claims are running for secretary of state in several battleground states, while continuing to sow doubt about how elections are administered.

In some counties, staffers are receiving special training aimed to ensure the election process runs smoothly.  In Arizona, the secretary of state's office hosted tabletop exercises for county election officials and law enforcement agents meant to prepare them for worst-case scenarios, said Sophia Solis, deputy communications director for the office, in an email to Salon.

In 2020, every county in Arizona was assigned a "threat liaison officer" to help prepare for and investigate any threats that might arise, Solis said. Staffers for the secretary of state have also met with county sheriffs to discuss what constitutes harassment or threats at polling locations, and to provide guidance on how to deal with such scenarios. 

State Voices, which partners with various other organizations in pro-democracy work, is also preparing for the upcoming midterms by partnering with Common Cause to create trainings for volunteers in how to handle disruptions at polling locations. 

In 2020, State Voices trained community members in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio to support voters and report any issues to the election protection hotline. Elena Langworthy, the group's deputy director of policy, said the planning and preparation seemed to work. "We had a plan in place to deal with anything that arose that was more on the side of physical violence and intimidation," she said, "and luckily we didn't see a [significant] number of physical incidents occur." 

But there is still no solution to the shortage of election workers in many counties, which Foster of Michigan Voices directly attributes to the ongoing wave of angry threats. These workers "just want to provide a service to their communities," Foster said, "and they're being unfairly attacked."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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