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‘It’s been a barrage every day’: US election workers face threats and harassment | US voting rights | The Guardian
‘It’s been a barrage every day’: US election workers face threats and harassment
"Before he leaves his house to walk his dog these days, Rick Barron’s 12-year-old-daughter reminds him that he needs to keep an eye out because she worries her dad could be the target of an attack.
Barron, 55, is the director of voting and elections in Fulton county, which includes Atlanta and is the most populous county in Georgia. For the last year, he’s been subject to a barrage of voicemails and emails with threats, including some threatening violence and death, as Donald Trump and his allies have falsely claimed the election was stolen.
“You will be served lead,” someone said on a voicemail left for Barron in recent months.
It’s an experience being shared by state and local officials across the United States. For decades, those officials have largely been invisible, working out of the public spotlight to ensure the machinery of elections runs smoothly. But as Trump and allies target that machinery as part of an effort to insist something was amiss in 2020, those officials have been thrust into the national spotlight and subject to vicious harassment. Nearly one in three election officials feel unsafe in their job, according to an April survey commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice.
“It’s been a barrage every day,” Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, told the Guardian. She said the threats have bombarded virtually every part of her office, including services that have nothing to do with elections.
Hobbs, a Democrat who is running for governor, testified last week at a Senate hearing on the threats, telling lawmakers her family had also been threatened, with calls coming in to her husband’s employer to fire him. Al Schmidt, a Republican election official in Philadelphia, told senators the threats were “domestic terrorism” as he read messages calling for the murder of him and his family.
Barron has overseen elections in Fulton county since 2013 and has been working on elections for more than two decades. He said he’s never experienced the kinds of attacks that he’s seen over the past year.
“I’ve done election observations overseas and you see how in those emerging democracies, former Soviet countries, how people are afraid to vote certain ways and so they all vote for the person. You can see now that possibility on the horizon at some point,” he said.
Barron and other election officials said that partisan websites as well as elected officials who continue to spread misleading and false information were facilitating the harassment. Barron described a spike in threats against him between Christmas and New Year’s last year after Trump played a video of Barron to supporters at a Georgia rally.
They also said they’re deeply concerned that so many election officials are choosing to leave the profession, creating openings for people with little experience or nefarious motives to get into positions where they could exercise enormous power over how elections are run.
“There are a lot of people leaving the profession. So I think you’re gonna end up with more inexperienced people running these offices. You’re going to see people in these types of jobs for a shorter period of time because the stress, after a while, it’s hard to ignore it all the time,” Barron said.
“I think part of the purpose of these threats and this ongoing lie is to get people to quit their jobs,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee election commission, who has also received a wave of threats since the election. “So that then you have either elections that aren’t as well run and you get people in who you can control.”
In Milwaukee, another place where Trump has falsely claimed fraud, Woodall-Vogg linked threats she has received to misleading stories published in the Gateway Pundit, a far-right news site that frequently published false information about elections.
Last year, she began getting some angry calls after the site ran a story inaccurately saying she “lost” a USB drive on election night. She started receiving death threats this summer after the site published an email from election night in which she jokingly responded to an elections consultant about the timing of when Milwaukee released its election results. “I should have not responded,” she said.
Threats began pouring in over email, saying things like Woodall-Vogg deserved to go before a firing squad and calling her “treasonous”. She received a letter at home and threats to her personal Gmail account.
Woodall-Vogg wasn’t persuaded the callers would actually act on the threat, but went out of state for 10 days last summer as a precaution. She also got an alarm system and a Ring doorbell for extra security at home. At work, the office layout is being reconfigured to adjust the point at which someone coming in first interacts with a staff member. Workers are also installing security glass that is harder to break, Woodall-Vogg said.
“I always liked that my job was non-partisan. I really don’t like politics,” said Woodall-Vogg. “I feel like in the past year, the threats are a direct result of the same political rhetoric that’s made my job as partisan and as contentious as it is. It’s all resulting from this facade of election fraud, that the election was rigged.”
As election officials face threats across the country, Republican lawmakers have inserted provisions into several new laws that impose steep penalties for officials who run afoul of election rules. In Iowa, a new Republican-backed law authorizes a fine of up to $10,000 on officials who commit “technical infraction”. A new Texas law similarly authorizes criminal punishment and $1,000 fines on election officials who fail to follow rules.
Law enforcement across the country has struggled to respond to the threats against election officials, a Reuters investigation from September found. The investigation identified 102 threats of violence or death against election officials in key battleground states, but could only document four instances in which someone had been charged, though it’s possible there may have been more arrests.
The justice department launched a taskforce to address threats against election workers in July. In August, the official in charge of the taskforce told secretaries of state that “the response has been inadequate,” according to Reuters. Federal officials lacked the infrastructure to constantly monitor threats against election officials nationwide and relied on those who were aware of them to report them.
“A lot of these law enforcement agencies are relying on us to report. And it’s hard for us to know what we should be reporting, because we’re not trained in threat assessment and it’s hard for us to know and to have the time to sort through,” Hobbs said. “There’s always the possibility that we’re missing something.”