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Threats Against Election Officials Imperil Democracy
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=59714"><span class="small">Sue Halpern, The New Yorker</span></a>   
Thursday, 01 July 2021 12:45

Halpern writes: "For Tina Barton, the death threats began a few days after last November's general election."

Election officials have been targeted not just by extremists but by Republican lawmakers who seek to penalize them for failing to adhere to spurious protocols. (photo: Hannah Mckay/Reuters)
Election officials have been targeted not just by extremists but by Republican lawmakers who seek to penalize them for failing to adhere to spurious protocols. (photo: Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

Threats Against Election Officials Imperil Democracy

By Sue Halpern, The New Yorker

01 July 21

“To have someone say you deserve a knife to your throat, that you should be executed, that they are going to eff up your family, shakes you,” a former city clerk said.

or Tina Barton, the death threats began a few days after last November’s general election. At the time, Barton was in her eighth year as the clerk of Rochester Hills, a city of seventy-five thousand people in southeastern Michigan, where her many responsibilities included administering elections. On the evening of November 3rd, after the city’s election results were transmitted to a central tabulator, it looked like the absentee ballots for some precincts had not been included, so Barton and her crew resubmitted them. The next morning, when they realized that these ballots had, in fact, been transmitted the first time, the mistake was fixed. Barton assumed that was the end of it.

Within days, Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, held a press conference in nearby Bloomfield Hills. Although Barton was appointed by a nonpartisan city council, she is a Republican and considered McDaniel an ally. “I was never called by them to say, ‘Hey, Tina, what happened there?’ ” Barton said. “There was never, like, let’s check the facts.” Instead, at the press conference, McDaniel falsely claimed that two thousand votes for Trump had gone to Biden. “It was a complete mischaracterization,” Barton told me. “They needed language to support the agenda that they were pushing, and they used me, specifically, for the shock factor, because I was a Republican. I think they were trying to make the case that, if it could happen in Rochester Hills, it could happen anywhere.”

Barton posted an explanatory video on Twitter, which quickly amassed more than a million views. A torrent of death threats followed, left on her office voice mail and sent via Facebook Messenger. “To have someone say you deserve a knife to your throat, that you should be executed, that they are going to eff up your family, shakes you,” she said. “And I’m fortunate. My husband is a sheriff’s deputy. That added a layer of security a lot of election officials don’t have.” Barton is now a senior adviser to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (E.A.C.), where she works with election administrators all over the country. “These are true public servants,” she said. “They are in it because they have a passion for democracy. And now they are asking themselves if they are willing to put themselves and their families at risk to do this job.”

A recent survey commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials now feel unsafe doing their jobs, citing, among other things, threats to their lives. More than half said that misinformation circulating on social media made their job more dangerous. “The year 2020 provided Americans with an extraordinary civics lesson on the importance of election officials to our democracy,” the center noted in a subsequent report, “Election Officials Under Attack,” which was co-authored with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It is no accident that in 2021, as American democracy finds itself under assault, these officials are a prime target.”

Last Friday, according to a memo from Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the Department of Justice launched a joint task force with the F.BI. to deal with threats to election workers. “We will promptly and vigorously prosecute offenders to protect the rights of American voters, to punish those who engage in this criminal behavior, and to send the unmistakable message that such conduct will not be tolerated.”

But officials like Barton have been targeted not just by QAnon conspiracists and Stop-the-Steal extremists. Republican state lawmakers across the country have been proposing and passing legislation to penalize election administrators and poll workers with sizable fines and criminal prosecution for failing to adhere to new, spurious protocols. An election supervisor in Florida who leaves a ballot drop box unattended, for whatever reason, can now be slapped with a twenty-five-thousand-dollar fine. Barton has been hearing from other election administrators who say that they are exhausted and traumatized. A number are in therapy. Some have had to put their children in therapy. “And now, with the legislation that’s coming forward in some states, attaching penalties that can be financial or jail time or whatever, it is going to cause a lot who haven’t already walked away, to stop and pause and reconsider,” Barton said.

The attrition has already begun. In California, for instance, fifteen per cent of election officials have left their jobs since last November. And, as the Brennan Center report points out, this may be the prelude to a “tsunami.” Nationally, nearly thirty-five per cent of election officials are eligible to retire by the 2024 election; a survey of more than eight hundred officials conducted by the Early Voting Information Center, at Reed College, found that potentially a quarter of them, in some of the country’s largest jurisdictions, are planning to do so. The worry is that, as election officials leave their jobs, not only will they take with them the institutional knowledge necessary to run free and fair elections but they will be replaced by ideologues who lack the commitment to one of the bedrock principles of American democracy—the apolitical administration of our elections. Matt Masterson, a former Republican E.A.C. commissioner, told me, “That creates an environment in which more threatening behavior is encouraged.”

Some states are hastening this transition, passing laws that effectively eliminate nonpartisan election authorities. In Georgia, the legislature removed the secretary of state as the head of the state elections board, deputized itself to name the chair, and empowered the board to take over “underperforming” local election systems, which is widely perceived to be a euphemism for poor communities of color that typically vote for Democrats. In Arizona, the G.O.P.-controlled legislature is aiming to strip the Democratic secretary of state of her authority to defend election lawsuits. And, in Kansas, the legislature has enacted a power grab from election officials. As the veteran election lawyers, Ben Ginsberg, a Republican, and Bob Bauer, a Democrat, recently wrote in the Times, “By subjecting them to invasive, politically motivated control by a state legislative majority, these provisions shift the last word in elections from the pros to the pols. This is a serious attack on the crucial norm that our elections should be run on a professional, nonpartisan basis—and it is deeply wrong.”

Since the election, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, who has served as the city clerk of Madison, Wisconsin, for fifteen years, has struggled with the decision of whether to stay in her job. “I’ve had to figure out if the stress of doing this work is worth trying to make voting accessible for all eligible voters in my community, or if I should be pursuing a career where I’m not receiving any death threats,” she told me. During a recount last fall, people looking for fraud noticed that all of the absentee ballots from Madison, as required by law, had been initialled by Witzel-Behl. One Web site, she said, hosted a discussion of the kinds of guns and ammunition they should use to kill her. Witzel-Behl said the police suggested that she get a home-security system, but, because that was not in her family’s budget, her husband used the money he’d been planning to spend on her Christmas present for a few security upgrades. “It nearly pushed me over the edge,” she said. “I kept going back and forth on a daily basis whether it would be better for my health and my family to move on.” In mid-June, after months of indecision, she agreed to sign on for another five years. “I finally decided that the value of trying to bring equity to the voting process was worth it,” she said.

Witzel-Behl and her staff are still fending off lawsuits related to the 2020 election. One conservative group challenged the grant money received by the city from a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, the Center for Tech and Civic Life (C.T.C.L.), claiming that it was a veiled attempt to benefit Democrats. (Witzel-Behl used the money to provide hazard pay to poll workers.) The funds came mainly from a three-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar donation made to the organization by Facebook’s C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to help with election administration during the pandemic, which sparked its own conspiracy theories. Although more than two hundred Wisconsin municipalities received grants, only five of them, including the state’s two biggest cities, Madison and Milwaukee, which are solidly Democratic, were targeted with litigation. (The suit failed in federal court.)

Republican legislators in Arizona and Arkansas have since made it illegal for any state or local election authority to accept outside funds. Yet, without the C.T.C.L. grants, which were distributed to twenty-five hundred election districts, many municipalities would not have been able to handle the deluge of absentee ballots, afford protective gear for election workers, buy drop boxes or, in many other ways, run an election during a national health crisis. The city of Philadelphia used its ten-million-dollar grant to purchase high-speed scanners, ballot extractors, and other equipment, and to increase the pay of Election Day workers. It, too, was sued. Its sole Republican election commissioner, Al Schmidt, received a barrage of threatening messages on his personal cell phone. His wife got an e-mail telling her, in all caps, “Albert Rino Schmidt will be fatally shot.” Two men were arrested with loaded semi-automatic weapons outside the convention center where ballots were being counted. After the election was called for Biden, Trump singled out Schmidt by name. His family had to move out of their home.

In recent weeks, much attention has been paid to measures being enacted at the state level to limit access to the ballot. Jurisdictions across the country are shortening polling hours, limiting early voting, and eliminating same-day voter registration. But undermining election administration—either by making it harder for officials to do their jobs or by removing them entirely—is new terrain for the Republican Party. Masterson, the former E.A.C. commissioner, told me, “As a Republican commissioner, it is incredibly disheartening to see a big chunk of the Party embrace a narrative of lies, and undermining of our democratic institutions because they can’t move on from a loss.” He went on, “It’s a grift. There are people out there who have identified the ability to both raise money and raise their profile pursuing these lies while offering assurances that they’re going to bring greater integrity to the system. In fact, what’s needed are laws that support and protect election officials and allow them to do their work in an environment that isn’t full of threats of violence and repercussions for doing their job.” your social media marketing partner