Threats against election officials are a threat to democracy
For Tina Barton, the death threats began a few days after the legislative elections last November. At the time, Barton was in his eighth year as clerk of Rochester Hills, a town of 75,000 people in southeast Michigan, where his many responsibilities included administering elections. On the evening of November 3, after the city’s election results were forwarded to a central tabulator, it appeared that the mail-in ballots for some constituencies had not been included, so Barton and his team submitted them. again. The next morning, when they realized that these ballots had in fact been transmitted the first time, the error was corrected. Barton guessed that was the end.
Within days, Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, held a press conference in nearby Bloomfield Hills. Although Barton was appointed by a non-partisan city council, she is a Republican and viewed McDaniel as an ally. “I was never called by them to say, ‘Hey, Tina, what happened there? “Barton said.” There never was, like, let’s check the facts. “Instead, during the press conference, McDaniel falsely claimed that two thousand votes for Trump went to Biden. âIt was a complete misrepresentation,â Barton told me. âThey needed language to support the agenda they were defending, and they used me, in particular, for the shock factor, because that I was a Republican. I think they were trying to argue that if it could happen in Rochester Hills, it could happen anywhere. “
Barton posted an explanatory video on Twitter, which quickly racked up over a million views. A torrent of death threats followed, left on his office voicemail and sent through Facebook Messenger. “Someone say you deserve a knife to your throat, that you should be executed, that they are going to scare your family, shake you up,” she said. âAnd I’m lucky. My husband is the sheriff’s deputy. This added a layer of security that many election officials lack. Barton is now a senior advisor to the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC), where she works with election administrators across the country. “They are real officials,” she said. âThey are there because they have a passion for democracy. And now they are wondering if they are willing to put themselves and their families at risk for doing this job.
A recent poll commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials now feel unsafe in the line of duty, citing threats to their life, among other things. More than half said the misinformation circulating on social media made their jobs more dangerous. “The year 2020 has provided Americans with an extraordinary lesson in civic duty on the importance of election officials to our democracy,” the center noted in a subsequent report, “Election Officials Under Attack,” co-authored with the Bipartisan Policy Center. . “It is no coincidence that in 2021, when American democracy finds itself under attack, these officials are a prime target.”
Last Friday, according to a note from Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the Ministry of Justice launched a joint working group with the F.BI. to deal with threats against election workers. “We will pursue violators swiftly and vigorously to protect the rights of American voters, punish those who engage in this criminal behavior, and send the unequivocal message that such behavior will not be tolerated.”
But officials like Barton have been targeted not only by QAnon conspirators and Stop-the-Steal extremists. Lawmakers in Republican states across the country have proposed and passed legislation to penalize election administrators and election officials with large fines and criminal charges for failing to follow spurious new protocols. An election supervisor in Florida who leaves a ballot box unattended, for any reason, can now be fined up to twenty-five thousand dollars. Barton has heard from other election administrators that they are exhausted and traumatized. A number are in therapy. Some had to put their children in therapy. “And now, with legislation coming up in some states, with financial penalties or jail time or whatever, it’s going to cause a lot of those who haven’t already left to stop, take a break and to reconsider, âBarton mentioned.
Attrition has already started. In California, for example, fifteen percent of election officials have quit their jobs since last November. And, as the Brennan Center report points out, it may be the prelude to a “tsunami.” Nationally, nearly thirty-five percent of election officials are eligible to retire by the 2024 election; a survey of more than eight hundred public servants 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 considering doing so. The concern is that when election officials leave their jobs, not only will they take with them the institutional knowledge needed to run free and fair elections, but they will be replaced by ideologues who lack commitment to one of the principles. fundamentals of American democracy. the apolitical administration of our elections. Matt Masterson, a former EAC Republican commissioner, told me, “This creates an environment in which more threatening behavior is encouraged.”
Some states are accelerating this transition by passing laws that effectively eliminate non-partisan electoral authorities. In Georgia, the legislature removed the secretary of state as head of the state electoral council, added the mandate to appoint the president, and authorized the council to take over “underperforming local electoral systems.” Which is widely seen as an understatement for the poor. communities of color who generally vote Democrats. In Arizona, the GOP-controlled legislature aims to strip the Democratic Secretary of State of her authority to defend election lawsuits. And, in Kansas, the legislature enacted a power grab for election officials. As seasoned election lawyers Ben Ginsberg, a Republican, and Bob Bauer, a Democrat, recently wrote in the Time“By subjecting them to invasive and politically motivated scrutiny by a state legislative majority, these provisions shift the final say in elections from pros to pols.” This is a serious attack on the crucial standard that our elections must be conducted on a professional, non-partisan basis, and it is deeply wrong. “
Since the election, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, who served as the city clerk of Madison, Wisconsin, for fifteen years, has struggled to decide whether or not to stay at her job. “I had to determine if the stress of doing this job was worth trying to make voting accessible to all eligible voters in my community, or if I should pursue a career where I receive no death threats,” she declared. said. During a recount last fall, fraud researchers noticed that all of Madison’s mail-in ballots, as required by law, had been initialed by Witzel-Behl. A website, she said, hosted a discussion of what types of weapons and ammunition they should use to kill her. Witzel-Behl said police suggested she get a home security system, but since it was not part of her family’s budget, her husband used the money he planned to spend for his Christmas present for some security improvements. “It almost pushed me over the edge,” she said. âI kept going back and forth every day to find out if it would be better for my health and my family to move on. In mid-June, after months of indecision, she agreed to sign up for another five years. “I finally decided that the value of trying to bring fairness to the voting process was worth it,” she said.