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Lisa Deeley did not watch the CNN town hall this week where Donald Trump repeated several debunked conspiracy theories about America’s elections.
But as an election administrator — Deely is chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, which helps oversee elections in the city — she soon learned all about it as peers shared clips that showed the barrage of falsehoods the former president spread to millions of viewers.
Deeley said she quickly thought about the ramifications for her fellow election workers: the potential for new forms of harassment and threats toward them, new considerations for their safety.
“It’s really a remarkable situation that we’re in, where some person can just keep lying and people choose to believe those lies,” she told The 19th. “Therein lies the biggest hurdle for election workers and for democracy.”
A predominantly women-led workforce, election workers in America have had little respite from the effects of conspiracy theories that permeated after the 2020 election. Trump, who is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president, made clear during the town hall that he intends to amplify that very messaging as he seeks another term. Despite real-time fact checking by the CNN moderator, the former president would not acknowledge his loss to President Joe Biden in 2020 and left open the possibility of accepting a defeat in 2024 only if he decides it’s “an honest election.”
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The doubt spread by Trump and his allies has led to threats to election workers’ safety and added to the demands of their job as they have had to prove the legitimacy of past elections, leaving less time to prepare for the next ones. The ongoing doubt over widespread election fraud — which is not based in fact — has in some cases contributed to Republican-led statehouses limiting outside funding for elections. Adequate state and federal funding, for both safety and other forms of election infrastructure, continue to be a concern for election workers, and election administrators warn the ramifications could further harm morale in the workforce while creating more distrust in the process.
“Trump’s election lies and conspiracies have fueled unprecedented voter suppression and political violence,” said Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state and chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “I think it’s very unfortunate that he was given that type of format and platform, because we all know he tried to steal the presidency from the American people.”
Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, tweeted during the town hall that she considered fact-checking the election lies, “but I’m too busy worrying about all the election administrators who are going to be subject to a new wave of threats & harassment because of the amplification of this nonsense.”
It’s difficult to measure the full effect of election denialism on election workers. But a recent survey by the Brennan Center for Justice shows the ongoing strain on a decentralized system that administrators say was mostly behind-the-scenes until the emergence of election conspiracies: Nearly 1 in 3 election officials say they have been harassed, abused or threatened because of their work. One in 5 say they are concerned about being physically assaulted on the job.
Separately, 45 percent of election officials say they’re concerned for the safety of their colleagues and other election officials in future elections.
It’s part of the reason Jackie Wu is no longer an election administrator in Orange County, California, one of the largest voting jurisdictions in the United States. She said after the January 6, 2021, insurrection — which was triggered in part by Trump’s false insistence that the 2020 election was rigged — she decided to leave the job for her own well-being. She now does election-related consulting.
“Election workers are the last line of defense for democracy,” she said. “We’re seeing scores of election workers who, like myself, have already left or plan on leaving before 2024. And I think that needs to be a bigger issue.”
In recent months, some legislatures have considered bills that would add protections for election workers, including new penalties for people accused of threatening them. Some provisions include keeping election workers’ home addresses private.
But they also come as other policies might complicate the work of election workers. Republican-controlled legislatures have considered adding criminal penalties for election workers. Separately, some Republican secretaries of state have announced plans to withdraw their states from a bipartisan interstate program that helps to ensure accurate voter lists.
Kathy Boockvar is a senior adviser at the Institute for Responsive Government and currently advises organizations, schools and election officials on election security and democracy issues. She said disinformation continues to be a prevalent dynamic in elections administration.
“The louder the voice, the more it’s going to reach people who then feel empowered to threaten their election officials,” said Boocker, a former Pennsylvania secretary of state who has experienced threats of violence in her work. “And if you ask most election officials, they could show you how often, if there’s a prominent speaker who spreads a lie, that some pieces of that language then finds its way into the threat.”
Griswold said the fact that most election workers are women means there is an added layer to the threats being inspired by Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct several times over the years.
“His contempt for women and free and fair elections is a toxic and dangerous combination for election workers,” she said.
Wu said election workers have long prided themselves in making any election budget work. But that is increasingly getting more complicated with risks of burnout and other challenges.
“I think that we’re really seeing a breaking point for some of the most dedicated individuals who care about democracy,” she said. “It’s really hard.”
Deeley said she is committed to her job as long as people continue to elect her to the post. She said watching election workers count ballots during the 2020 primary amid a global pandemic is a core memory for her, and she wants to remind the public about the people behind the titles.
“These people that do this work are your neighbors, your family members in some cases — you might go to church with them. They’re just ordinary people,” she said. “This is their job. They’re not part of any conspiracy. They are just ordinary people that are doing the work that they’ve done in some cases, for decades.”
Boockvar said legal accountability will be an important step toward addressing election denialism. She noted Fox News’ recent settlement of a defamation lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems over false election claims. Separately, prosecutors in Georgia are investigating Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 election in the state.
She said another component is public education of America’s election system, as well as supporting election workers through adequate financial support.
“Election officials are overworked, underpaid and understaffed, so the more we fund them, the more we enable them to help get out accurate information about elections, and help combat disinformation as it happens,” she said.