Column: It’s all tricks and no treats for precinct workers and county clerks this election season
Remember when running elections was so safe, so uncontroversial, that volunteering to work the polls seemed to be mostly the avocation of public-spirited retirees?
Sure you do, because no matter how old you are, that describes your whole voting life. Until Donald Trump.
American history’s sorest loser has strafed the foundations of democracy with his lies about rigged ballots, and for his own selfish ends, he has demonized the selfless folks who’ve long been democracy’s worker bees. The defeated president’s demagoguery has spawned red-state voting restrictions and radicalized his MAGAts, whose harassment and intimidation of election workers and voters alike have given new meaning to the phrase battleground states.
It’s really scary out there in this Halloween election season, all tricks and no treats.
Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.
Did you ever in your wildest nightmare think you’d see Americans cast their ballots under the suspicious eyes of armed vigilantes in tactical gear or be filmed by strangers as they voted, as happened in the past week in Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz.?
In Nevada, a headline in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday read: “ ‘Prepare For The Worst’: Election Officials Increase Security To Protect Workers From Threats.” Elsewhere, local election offices are taking security measures, including teaching de-escalation techniques, and even providing active-shooter training to employees, installing bulletproof glass and reinforcing walls with Kevlar.
At the very least, the expectation is that we’ll face some degree of electoral chaos after Nov. 8, especially in the battleground states — Republican activists challenging voters, candidates contesting election results, party officials refusing to certify an outcome or red-state legislatures trying to decide the winners. All with the balance of power in Congress at stake. Reports this week in Rolling Stone and elsewhere said Trump has lately had meetings and calls with Republican operatives on how to challenge midterm election results, especially in Senate races, if they don’t go his way.
(Another question: Did you ever think you’d see candidate after candidate unwilling to say they’d accept the results of an American election? In decades as a national political reporter, I never thought to ask that of politicians and if I had, they — Republican or Democrat — would have looked at me like I was mad.)
Far-right political figures are telling their followers, if we lose, you’ve been cheated, a message that many seem to think makes ‘revolution’ justified even before votes have been cast.
Set aside the potential for chaos, however. What’s already happening is collateral damage done to our fellow citizens who run elections. We used to take them for granted. Now we should actively support them and even work with them at the precinct level to safeguard elections.
In March, the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found that 20% of election officials expected to leave their jobs by 2024, given the political attacks and heightened stress; 1 in 3 knew a co-worker who’d left out of concerns for safety.
“In the wake of Trump’s lies, a brain drain of local election experience in Georgia” was the headline on an exhaustive, even heartbreaking Boston Globe report in recent days.
A U.S. House report documented threats, including one to a Texas election official saying he should be killed and “his lifeless body [hung] in public until maggots drip out of his mouth.”
Texas pioneered this horror show before Florida joined, and the scare tactics work. They can discourage voters, spook donors and derail campaigns.
What makes the exodus of long-time election workers worse is that they’re too often getting replaced with Trumpist election deniers. In Michigan, Politico reported this month, a Republican county clerk hired Genevieve Peters, a Michigan native whose LinkedIn page said she once worked as a Los Angeles election supervisor on contract. More recently, however, she was filmed cheering on insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and afterward she filmed herself saying that that mayhem was “only the beginning.”
This is no accident. It’s the real replacement theory, the one that everyone should worry about.
“Heads up, America” — that’s what the co-founder of a nonpartisan fair-elections group, States United Democracy Center, warned when I interviewed her late last year on the right’s burgeoning efforts to replace nonpartisan staffers in election offices with Trump zealots. “We’re taking over all the elections,” Trump henchman Stephen K. Bannon said in describing that “precinct strategy.”
The former president is the effort’s recruiter in chief. Here’s a statement released in February: “If members of our Great movement start getting involved (that means YOU becoming a precinct committeeman for your voting precinct), we can take back our great Country from the ground up.”
The Bakersfield congressman’s ideological flexibility, fundraising prowess and management of Donald Trump have helped him hold House Republicans together as they head into the midterm elections. Now he’s on the verge of gaining the prize he has long desired.
Politico obtained recordings in which Republican Party state officials and other Trump allies discussed creating “an army” of partisan poll workers with hotlines to friendly local lawyers and district attorneys, to challenge voters in Democratic-leaning precincts.
Meanwhile, nonpartisan administrators and volunteers in election offices struggle on, taking extra steps — holding seminars and giving tours, for example — to try to reassure voters, especially those who believe the “Big Lie,” that in fact the systems in place are fair and square.
“What’s happening now is based off of two things,” Matt Crane, a self-described conservative Republican who heads the Colorado County Clerks Assn., told Congress at a hearing on increased threats to election workers. “It’s based on a lie [that the 2020 presidential election was stolen]. And it is based on a lack of leadership, unfortunately from my party.” Elected Republicans won’t speak out, he said, for fear of “political retribution.”
It can’t be said often enough: This is not normal. It’s the stuff of faux-democratic authoritarian states that we’ve read about and tut-tutted all our adult lives. Places where strongmen seek to take over the levers of democracy, with the help of their misguided ground troops.
I’d call it un-American, yet it’s happening here.
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