For decades, election officials have largely been invisible, working out of the public spotlight to ensure the machinery of elections runs smoothly.
But as Trump and allies target that machinery as part of an effort to insist something was amiss in 2020, those officials have been thrust into the national spotlight and subject to vicious harassment. Nearly one in three election officials feel unsafe in their job, according to an April survey commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice.
There is also a deep concern that so many election officials are choosing to leave the profession, that it creates openings for people with little experience or nefarious motives to get into positions where they could exercise enormous power over how elections are run.
“I think part of the purpose of these threats and this ongoing lie is to get people to quit their jobs,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee election commission, who has also received a wave of threats since the election. “So that then you have either elections that aren’t as well run and you get people in who you can control.”
Milwaukee was one of the many places where Trump has falsely claimed fraud. Woodall-Vogg linked threats she has received to misleading stories published in the Gаtеwаy Pundіt, a far-right news site that frequently published false information about elections.
Last year, she began getting some angry calls after the site ran a story inaccurately saying she “lost” a USB drive on election night. She started receiving death threats this summer after the site published an email from election night in which she jokingly responded to an elections consultant about the timing of when Milwaukee released its election results. “I should have not responded,” she said.
Threats began pouring in over email, saying things like Woodall-Vogg deserved to go before a firing squad and calling her “treasonous.” She received a letter at home and threats to her personal Gmail account.
Woodall-Vogg was not persuaded that the callers would actually act on the threat, but went out of state for 10 days last summer as a precaution. She also got an alarm system and a Ring doorbell for extra security at home. At work, the office layout is being reconfigured to adjust the point at which someone coming in first interacts with a staff member. Workers are also installing security glass that is harder to break, Woodall-Vogg said.
“I always liked that my job was non-partisan. I really don’t like politics,” said Woodall-Vogg. “I feel like in the past year, the threats are a direct result of the same political rhetoric that’s made my job as partisan and as contentious as it is. It’s all resulting from this facade of election fraud, that the election was rigged.”
As election officials face threats across the country, Republican lawmakers have inserted provisions into several new laws that impose steep penalties for officials who run afoul of election rules. In Iowa, a new Republican-backed law authorizes a fine of up to $10,000 on officials who commit “technical infraction”. A new Texas law similarly authorizes criminal punishment and $1,000 fines on election officials who fail to follow rules.
Law enforcement across the country has struggled to respond to the threats against election officials, a Reuters investigation from September found. The investigation identified 102 threats of violence or death against election officials in key battleground states, but could only document four instances in which someone had been charged, though it’s possible there may have been more arrests.
The justice department launched a taskforce to address threats against election workers in July. In August, the official in charge of the taskforce told secretaries of state that “the response has been inadequate.” Federal officials lacked the infrastructure to constantly monitor threats against election officials nationwide and relied on those who were aware of them to report them.