Threats, pressures faced by poll workers pose 'existential threat to our democracy,' experts warn

Election workers are resigning at higher-than-normal rates, local officials say.

June 25, 2021, 5:00 AM

A steady clip of threatening messages has inundated the Milwaukee Election Commission in recent months, forcing the once-sleepy office to divert attention from its official mandate -- administering free and fair elections -- to a more pressing concern: ensuring the safety of its employees.

"Usually, we are thinking about election security and what we can do to protect everyone's vote," said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the commission's executive director. "But after November 2020, we are actually having to look at our own physical security, which is sad ... but it's definitely necessary."

State and local election offices across the country are facing similar challenges, in many cases prompting mass resignations up and down their ranks -- and stoking fear among some experts that their replacements will put partisan loyalties above a commitment to democracy.

In the eight months since the 2020 presidential election, the plight of election workers -- propelled by misinformation surrounding the results of the election and a wave of Republican-led state-level voting reform efforts -- is posing an "existential threat to our democracy," warns Larry Norden, an elections expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan public policy institute.

"Election officials have become a target, a scapegoat, for the fact that an election turned out a way some people didn't want," Norden said. "And political leaders have made them a scapegoat for that fact."

In this Dec. 12, 2020, file photo, Trump supporters attend a Stop the Steal rally in downtown Washington, D.C.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images, FILE

Since November, one-third of election workers report feeling unsafe because of their job, according to a recent nationwide survey commissioned by the Brennan Center. Nearly one-fifth of respondents listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

As a result, election offices are reporting higher-than-normal turnover. ABC News has learned that multiple key swing states and districts are already hemorrhaging experienced poll workers, and experts are warning that the current environment could cripple efforts to recruit and retain replacements.

"We can't have free and fair elections in the United States if we don't have election officials who are willing to stand up and ensure that elections are conducted fairly," Norden said. "We can't ignore this problem and hope it will go away. It's extremely dangerous."

In South Carolina, for example, ten of the state's 46 county election directors have resigned or retired since November -- more than double the normal rate of turnover, a state spokesperson said. Pennsylvania has lost 28 county election directors or assistants in 25 out of 67 counties between January 2020 and January 2021.

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, May 6, 2021.
Matt York/AP, FILE

In Arizona's Maricopa County, where a controversial Republican-led audit of more than 2 million ballots is underway, eight employees have left their post since November. A spokesperson for the county's elections department said that both elected officials and county elections officials have been victims of targeted harassment and threats.

The departure of county and municipal election administrators reflects a similar trend at higher-profile statewide offices. Connie Lawson resigned from her position as Indiana's secretary of state in February, saying that "2020 took a toll on me."

Part of the toll on election workers has come from a series of legal challenges filed by then-President Donald Trump's allies that sought to target the objectivity of election workers in key swing states. Though the vast majority of cases were dismissed, many of the false or exaggerated claims in these lawsuits contributed to the misinformation that ultimately provoked throngs of Trump supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

"These election workers are feeling the brunt of former President Trump and various Republican allies lying about the election," said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for the government watchdog group Common Cause. "All of a sudden, these election workers are part of some vast conspiracy."

Furthermore, many of the voting regulation bills now being introduced by Republican state legislators would impose criminal penalties on election workers who violate rules or make errors.

In Wisconsin, Woodall-Vogg says a series of Republican-led hearings on proposed state voting regulations has led to threats against her and her staff.

"Anytime those types of hearings are taking place is when I'm seeing an increase in the chatter -- the threatening emails I receive and angry phone calls," Woodall-Vogg said.

Albert says that what Woodall-Vogg and other election officials have described represents "a level of threat and intimidation against election officials that you just don't see in a democracy."

"We're seeing election officials receive death threats, they've been doxed, they're in hiding," Albert said.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks to his supporters at Save America Rally on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, D.C.
Yuri/Gripas/Abaca Press via Sipa USA via AP, FILE

The prospect of experienced election workers resigning from these already "thankless jobs," as Albert described them, raises an even more troubling question: Who will replace them?

"Are they going to be able to find replacement workers? And if they do find replacement workers, who are they going to be?" asked Norden of the Brennan Center. "If nobody wants the job because of the threats, except for people who are who are determined to be unfair in the administration and elections, that's a big problem."

Joanna Lydgate, CEO of the States United Democracy Center, a new bipartisan organization that aims to protect democratic norms, told ABC News that this is an "all hands on deck moment" for local and federal officials.

"We need strong federal and state election protections enacted to ensure our election officials have the tools and resources they need to continue conducting free, fair, and secure elections," Lydgate said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland appears to have heeded calls for action. In a speech on protecting voting rights earlier this month, Garland noted "the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers."

Garland pledged that the Department of Justice would "investigate and promptly prosecute" any such violations.

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