The Memo: Attacks on democracy seep down to school boards, election offices

The toxic acrimony of national politics is seeping down to the local level — and the consequences look ever more ominous.

In recent weeks, school board meetings across the country have descended into screaming matches, often over mask mandates.

Meanwhile, election workers are still reckoning with the forces unleashed in last year’s presidential election — and the fear in some states that new laws mean they could be sued or harassed by partisans in the future.

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In many places there is fear — fear for the safety of the low- and mid-level officials who do the unglamorous work that keeps democracy knitted together and fear for what happens if they decide it’s just not worth it.

Monica Furey Peloso is the president of the board of education for Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado.

On Monday, a meeting open to the public became disruptive after anti-mask advocates — many of whom Peloso believes do not live in her district — turned up to harangue the board members for requiring masks for all students.

After the public comment period was over, the board went to a small meeting room to conduct the rest of its business. Irate crowd members gathered in a courtyard outside, Peloso said.

“A lot of people were chanting and banging on the windows and the door of that little room,” Peloso told this column. “A lot of the people who were facing in at us weren’t even from our district, which was really frustrating.”

The week before, roughly 1,600 miles away, a meeting of the Spotsylvania County School Board in Virginia had to be abandoned — after 13 minutes, according to the local newspaper, The Free Lance-Star — after the crowd became “unruly.”

The school board chairwoman in that case, Dawn Shelley, told this column via email that the behavior she is witnessing from adults is “teaching their children that they can do whatever they want, no matter the consequences. I am worried for our country.”

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Shelley also expressed concern that school boards and other local institutions will become less representative of their communities and instead will be taken over by political zealots.

“My concern is not that people won't step up to the plate,” she said. “My concern is that people who don't care, are power hungry, or have a personal agenda will be the ones getting their names on ballots.”

Disruptive scenes have been reported across the nation as the politicization of the pandemic deepens.

Eleven people were charged for disrupting a school board meeting in Salt Lake City in May; an aspiring Republican politician in Pennsylvania said within the past two weeks that he planned on “going in with 20 strong men” to oust his local board; a meeting in Michigan descended into uproar after one parent responded to a comment about mask mandates with a Nazi salute.

But the anger and incivility isn’t just being seen around school boards — and it can’t be wholly attributed to the prolonged stresses of the pandemic either.

American politics has been becoming more venomous for at least a couple of decades. The factors driving that are numerous and complex. They include the self-reinforcing power of social media, the decline of community institutions and the willingness of cable news outlets to stoke outrage for ratings.

Then there is former President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE, both a symptom and an accelerant of the nation’s polarization.

Trump climbed to power by harnessing populist anger at political and media elites. He lost that power only after fomenting a violent uprising, which resulted in him becoming the first president in history to be twice impeached.

The currents that tug at American public life don’t begin and end with Trump — and their negative impact isn’t felt only by his nationally known targets such as Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave Judge to hear Trump's case against Jan. 6 committee in November MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHouse progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Toomey takes aim at Schumer's spending windfall for NYC public housing MORE (D-N.Y.).

Rural Ware County in southeast Georgia briefly became a flashpoint following the 2020 election when Trump allies alleged voting machines had “switched” votes from Trump to President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE.

In fact, the 37 votes at issue had been miscounted due to human error. The mistake had been spotted and swiftly resolved.

But the supervisor of elections in the county, Carlos Nelson, is still living with the consequences. His office’s efforts to recruit new election workers for future elections are struggling. He told this column the county is at about 60 percent of where it should be in terms of staffing.

He also related how people who worked on the county’s elections in 2020 had told him about being harassed in grocery stores or while otherwise going about their business.

“People were making snide remarks — ‘we know y’all stealing votes’ and that kind of stuff,” he said.

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Those experiences are all the more frustrating given that the workers in question are hardly signing up for glamor or lavish remuneration.

“When a poll worker works from 6 o’clock a.m to 8 o’clock p.m., and you get $125 a day, you are only doing it because of civic duty, because they want to be involved in the process. They are not doing it for the money,” said Nelson.

State-level politicians are also feeling the strain.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) rose to national prominence for reasons she would have preferred to avoid last December.

A mob gathered outside Benson's home on a Saturday evening, chanting through megaphones in protest of the state’s election result. Some of the protesters were armed. Benson was inside with her 4-year-old son, the family having just finished putting up Christmas decorations.

In a phone interview Friday, Benson said she was still on the receiving end of some unpleasant exchanges.

“The encounters have changed in type, I would say. They have shifted back online; it has diminished a bit in rancor. But at the same time the constant state of apprehension has remained,” she said.

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Benson serves in a state where there are also ongoing criminal proceedings against a group of men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerMichigan's governor should follow Pennsylvania's on school choice expansions Michigan orders 'all-hands-on-deck' response to water crisis Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Michigan leaves majority-Black city with lead-contaminated taps for three years MORE (D). One defendant who pleaded guilty in that case was sentenced to more than six years in prison late last month.

In Benson's own situation, the stress of the current political moment takes a toll.

“It has created, really, a sense of a new normal where you are consistently on edge and consistently aware of the simmering threats,” Benson said. “Sometimes they are more flagrant, sometimes they are more in front of you than others, but there is always a constant recognition of threats.”

Benson asserted that, even in the worst days, she did not wonder whether the costs had become just too high to serve in public office, however. She recalled that she had begun her career working on voting rights in Montgomery, Ala. — and she viewed the attempt to overturn the 2020 election in a similar light.

But as Benson looks at events in other states, not just her own, she wonders where the country is headed. She expresses optimism — but she is blunt about the price to be paid if well-intentioned people turn away in the face of intimidation.

She said that only days ago she addressed a group of election clerks and that “70 percent of my remarks were probably just me saying, ‘Thank you.’”

The work was so important, she added, “because if people give up and walk away and don’t stand on the front lines — whether it’s a bridge in Selma or whether it’s working an election — our democracy will wither on the vine.”

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A generation ago, former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, coined a memorable phrase to describe America’s tradition of civic-mindedness and volunteerism. 

Those efforts, he said, were like “a thousand points of light” for the nation.

The lights are being dimmed by rancor now.


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.