Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat viewed as a national leader in voting rights, has received 67 death threats and over 900 threats of online abuse within just three weeks, according to a system used by her office that tracks harassment and threats against election workers.
In 2020, Griswold’s office launched a “rapid response” election security unit, a team of election security experts tasked with protecting Colorado’s elections from cyber-attacks, foreign interference and disinformation campaigns. A year later, her office set up a tracker to monitor the growing number of threats against election workers.
Griswold told Salon that “if anybody understands” what election workers around the country “are going through, it’s me.” She continued, “Everything that we have done for my security, we have had to fight tooth and nail for. State and federal governments have largely abandoned election workers. I understand what these county clerks are going through and I’ll do anything I possibly can to ease their burden and make sure that they feel safe and supported.”
Election workers in many states and counties are leaving their jobs in large numbers due to an increase of harassment and threats, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and heightened workloads, according to a new report released this week by Issue One, democracy-focused nonprofit group.
The group’s research focused on 11 states in the American West and found that roughly 40% of counties in those states have had a new chief local election official since the 2020 presidential election. In four states, that number exceeds 50%.
These turnover rates, experts say, pose a distinct threat to American democracy, since election administrators with decades of knowledge and experience are leaving their roles and being replaced by individuals with vastly less experience not long before a pivotal presidential election that is likely to see near-record voter turnout.
“Election workers across the country are dedicated to keeping our democratic processes secure, fair and safe,” Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One, told Salon. “When experienced election officials leave their positions, they take with them years of institutional knowledge and expertise. Our leaders have an obligation to protect our nation’s election workers and make sure they have what they need to keep our elections strong.”
According to Griswold, Republicans allied with Donald Trump’s MAGA movement are doing everything they can to “destabilize” elections and convince local election officials to quit, up to and including harassing workers and threatening them with violence.
“There is a coordinated national effort to undermine American elections,” Griswold said, pointing to the example of Trump supporters showing up to county clerk’s offices in 2021 and threatening them if they didn’t provide access to voting equipment.
The turnover rate among local election officials since 2020 is far higher than it was previously, particularly in battleground states where local election officials have faced a heightened level of death threats and harassment, the Issue One report found.
Making matters worse, the report found, new election officials are grappling with a shortage of resources to staff other vital roles essential to ensure that elections run smoothly.
More than 160 chief local election officials have departed from their roles since November 2020 within the 11 Western states tracked by Issue One tracked. Those 11 states includes two perennial battleground states and a mix of Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning states, where elections are typically managed at the county level by a single official.
As these threats have surged and election officials have left their positions in droves, Griswold said, not enough has been done to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process.
“State and federal governments have abandoned our quest to safeguard democracy, to a large extent,” Griswold said. “With that said, people in my office — we are very scrappy and dedicated, and we’re going to get the job done.”
Griswold said she has implemented specific measures to address likely issues ahead of next year’s elections. She has expanded her team to offer direct support to Colorado’s counties and, within the past year, has contracted with former election officials to increase much greater on-the-ground presence.
She has also spearheaded changes in the Colorado state legislature, such as criminalizing retaliation against election workers and providing a process to shield their personal information and to make “doxxing” — or revealing a person’s home address and phone number without their consent — a punishable offense.
Colorado has also enacted a law prohibiting the “open carry” of firearms close to drop boxes, voting centers and areas where ballots are being processed, in an effort to ensure that election workers are not intimidated by armed individuals. Her team has also prepared for hypothetical “disaster scenarios,” including such potential instances as a “deepfake” video showing Griswold spreading false information.
“We’ve overcome a lot of challenges with a great outcome,” Griswold said, “including armed men filming people at drop boxes to county clerks that breach their own security trying to prove the Big Lie. “There has been massive disinformation, and we continue to have incredibly well-run elections. I think 2024 will be no different.”
The Brennan Center released a poll in April that surveyed local election officials and found that 12% of workers were new to their jobs since the 2020 election, and that 11% said they were likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 election.
Nearly one in three election officials have been harassed, abused or threatened because of their jobs, the survey found, and more than one in five are concerned about being physically assaulted on the job during future elections. Nearly half the respondents expressed concern for the safety of other election officials and workers.
The Justice Department under Attorney General Merrick Garland has created a task force on election threats, but so far it has been quiet. Just 14 cases have been prosecuted involving threats against election officials and workers, leading to nine convictions, according to an August press release.
For many years, local election officials were relatively anonymous figures, working behind the scenes with little controversy to ensure the integrity of democratic processes.
But the spotlight was turned on many of them unexpectedly during the 2020 presidential election, largely due to a coordinated disinformation campaign led by then-President Donald Trump and his supporters. Most officials say the surge in harassment and threats came as a direct result, prompting numerous officials to retire or resign.
Josh Daniels is a former county clerk of Utah County, the second-largest county in its namesake state. He says he faced this dilemma personally. He initially joined the county’s election team in 2019 as chief deputy after being recruited by a friend who had been elected clerk.
Then the 2020 presidential election happened.
“People came out of the woodwork in our community to spout, parrot and share these sorts of national election-denying conspiracies,” Daniels said. “It became quite exhausting,” Daniels said.
His office was inundated with phone calls from individuals accusing election officials of being untrustworthy. They were subjected to what he called “Cyber Ninja-style audits,” similar to the one conducted in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
Daniels was forced to spend many hours in public meetings with “angry” individuals who made baseless allegations drawn from internet conspiracy theories.
Utah County is predominantly white and predominantly Republican. Donald Trump won nearly two-thirds of the vote there in 2020. Nonetheless, Daniels said, the “political dynamic” of the community changed in the wake of that election, thanks to a “loud faction” of the community that spread distrust about how the election had been conducted.
“We didn’t get a lot of help from other political leaders in our community,” Daniels said. Instead, some “would almost accelerate” the tension, creating “forums for more of these concerns to be shared and create further political chaos.”
Daniels decided not to seek re-election in 2022, but he says the conspiracy theories and threats against election workers have continued.
In Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah — the four states with the highest turnover rates among election officials — Issue One’s research found that twice as many local election officials had left their positions than had done so in Washington and Idaho.
Among the 161 counties in Western states that have new chief local election officials since November 2020, the report notes a significant decline in the average years of experience held by these officials, going from a previous figure of about eight years to roughly one year. The “brain drain associated with this exodus is real,” the report finds, calculating that departing election officials in those counties have taken with them more than 1,800 years of combined experience.
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