'Democracy is on the line': Election officials face ongoing threats for doing their jobs
A recent survey found 1 in 3 election officials feels unsafe at work.
Al Schmidt had a front-row seat to history when a batch of votes in Philadelphia tipped the state of Pennsylvania, and the 2020 presidential election, toward Joe Biden.
As Philadelphia's Republican city commissioner, Schmidt had been holed up for days in the convention center, making sure every vote, mail-in or in-person, was counted.
"For us, it's really never about who wins and who loses," Schmidt told ABC News. "It's really about counting, counting the votes."
He defended the vote count and integrity of the election -- only to find himself a target of former President Donald Trump. Four days after the race was called, Trump tweeted at Schmidt saying, without evidence, that he had refused to look at "a mountain of corruption and dishonesty."
Schmidt said that's when the threats against his life and his family started to ramp up.
"They became a lot more specific, a lot more graphic, largely targeted at my family, my kids," he said. "Mentioning my children by name, my address, pictures of my house. Like the people who sent them had clearly done their homework."
Schmidt is among a long list of state and local election officials facing increasing threats, fueling what some say is an unprecedented exodus.
A recent survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found 1 in 3 election officials nationwide feels unsafe at work. Nearly 1 in 5 called threats to their lives a job-related concern.
"There is, I'm sure, no election official in the country that when they ran for the job ... ever contemplated death threats, let alone death threats to their children as being part of that job description," Schmidt said.
In Pennsylvania, nearly half of county election directors have resigned since 2019, according to Lisa Schaefer of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. She said many others cite personal and violent threats.
"These are people who are getting called and yelled at constantly by their friends and their neighbors for things that are often out of their control," Schaefer said.
It's not just local election officials in swing states getting targeted.
Democrat Roxanna Moritz resigned in the wake of the 2020 election as the auditor and commissioner of elections in Scott County, Iowa, after more than a decade on the job. She cited a culture of bullying toward election officials, who often work long hours with little pay, because "we care about our democracy."
"The personal attacks on each and every one of us has made of us aware this maybe isn't where we want to be," Moritz told ABC News.
Election experts warn about the loss of institutional knowledge in this wave of resignations from roles that are historically above the political fray.
Another concern, according to Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice, is who will replace the officials who resign.
"We've seen, for instance, some candidates for secretary of state, which is generally the chief election official in the state, who have come out and said that they basically believe in the 'Big Lie,'" that Trump was cheated out of an election win, Howard said.
ABC News has previously reported on new state laws that shift election administration to highly partisan bodies, as part of a broader effort to shift power away from officials who refuted the "Big Lie." Some of these changes to election laws appear to be in direct retaliation of officials who defended the integrity of the 2020 results.
In Maricopa County, Arizona, Bill Gates is a Republican on the board of supervisors overseeing elections. His county has become a hotbed of election misinformation despite several recounts and audits confirming President Joe Biden's win.
"I have to plead with these folks to listen to me to the truth that I'm telling them, because they've been told lies for a year now, and they believe it," he told ABC News.
More than a year after the election, Gates said he's still targeted daily online, and called a traitor who should be jailed.
"There have been evenings where we have literally spent the night at an Airbnb because of threats," he told ABC News. "There are nights where we have slept with sheriff's deputies outside of the house because of these threats."
Gates and Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt both said fighting election misinformation is proving to be a critical test of American democracy.
"I think there is an additional obligation on Republicans like myself to speak the truth about the 2020 election and to stand up in the face of all of these lies, regardless of what the consequences are for any of us," Schmidt said. "With our democracy on the line, pretty much anything, it's worth it."
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