Threats of violence spark fear of election worker exodus
There is growing concern that election workers will leave their posts in droves following a 2020 presidential contest that saw an unprecedented rise in violent threats against administrators.
Election workers had their homes broken into. Their private information was maliciously posted online. Some fled with their families into hiding. Others faced down armed crowds outside their workplaces and homes. And nearly nine months after Election Day, the threats persist.
“It’s absolutely going to lead to an unprecedented exodus of a whole generation, I think, of professional election administrators,” David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told The Hill.
Nearly 1 in 6 local election workers received threats of violence, and almost 1 in 3 said they feel unsafe because of their job, according to an April survey by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Although no central database tracks departures among the nation’s estimated 8,000 local election workers, one expert told The Hill that there is now a “perfect storm of low morale and high turnover.”
“Anyone who has been around elections for a while will tell you that the number of election administrators leaving their jobs this year is much higher than ever,” said Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The threats of violence have emerged when the task of election administration has grown more complex, but while workers remain relatively low paid compared to similar government employees. At the same time, more than 1 in 3 election officials are eligible for retirement by 2024, according to a study by the Democracy Fund.
As a result, a workforce that once carried out its civic role behind the scenes and with little fanfare is now beset by an array of challenges, including the prospect of political violence, which have workers eyeing the exits. As Weil put it: “That is exactly what we don’t want for the people charged with delivering democracy to voters.”
Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center, told The Hill that the importance of having a trained, fair-minded, professional corps of elections administrators cannot be overstated.
“Our democracy is at stake, that’s no exaggeration,” Norden said. “You cannot have free and fair elections without election workers who are able to ensure nonpartisan administration and can do so without fear.”
According to experts, the key driver behind the violent threats is the same impetus that fueled the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: former President Trump’s repeated lies about the 2020 election being stolen.
“There is no question in my mind that in both cases, you have people who believe violence is justified because of that Big Lie,” Norden said.
The security of election works has gained some attention in Washington.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in June said the Department of Justice has “not been blind to the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats” targeting election administrators.
The agency has established a task force to address the issue. But it has not provided a tally of ongoing investigations, charges filed or convictions secured, despite multiple requests from The Hill.
Lawmakers are also beginning to show interest in election worker safety.
A congressional panel last week held a hearing that featured testimony from a pair of election officials who faced threats while administering the 2020 election.
One witness was Adrian Fontes, the former county recorder for Maricopa County, Ariz., who described the scene in the parking lot outside the Maricopa County Elections Office in the days after the Nov. 3 vote, which would hand President Biden a narrow win in the state.
“We had armed almost-rioters in Maricopa County. We had Alex Jones and the Q Shaman, literally arm-in-arm shouting my name and shouting for other election officials in the parking lot,” he said, referring, respectively, to the InfoWars conspiracist and to the QAnon member who was later arrested for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“Their compatriots were armed with some pretty heavy-duty firearms. And I know because I was a range coach and marksmanship instructor in the Marine Corps,” Fontes continued. “I know what kind of damage those weapons could do. And that was certainly no civil act of protest. That was not a grievance. The presence of those weapons in this environment was a threat.”
Experts say that underlying the violent threats is a bitter irony: Election workers displayed nothing short of heroism in administering a transparent, fully verified 2020 election with the highest turnout in American history in the middle of a global pandemic.
“They just pulled off probably one of the greatest stories in the history of American democracy,” Becker said. “And their reward is that they and their families are being targeted. … It is absolutely demoralizing, because it’s so divorced from reality and how successful they were.”