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High fences and bodyguards for 2022 election workers

As the midterms approach, states and counties prepare for security threats

Election officials process absentee ballots on August 9 in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Getty Images/Photo by Scott Olson

High fences and bodyguards for 2022 election workers

At a panel discussion about election security Tuesday, four Wisconsin elections experts were asked if they had been threatened. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell raised his hand.

“There’s two kinds of threats, the ‘I hope you die’ threat—those aren’t the problem really,” he told the crowd. “There are more specific threats. The hard ones are like, ‘You committed sedition, you should die, you should watch out.’ You tell law enforcement about those, it’s frustrating for clerks because what do you say? It’s like a game of Clue, do they have to tell you it’s going to be in the billiards room with a wrench at 4 p.m.?”

Wisconsin is an electoral swing state, and it’s not the only one figuring out how to adapt voting methods and protect election workers in the first major election since 2020. Midterm candidates and Trump himself have continued to allege that the last presidential election was stolen, a position that has become a litmus test for some conservative candidates. There were documented—and prosecuted—cases of electoral fraud in the 2020 elections, though so far no investigative agency has uncovered widespread abuses that would have changed the election’s outcome.

In the meantime, poll workers, election directors, and secretaries of state administering elections have come under fire. The pressure has thinned the field, especially in areas like Gillespie County, Texas, where all three election officials quit in August. In Luzerne County, Pa., Election Director Michael Susek was in his job for only eight months before joining The Elections Group, a nonpartisan, for-profit election consulting firm. According to a March survey conducted by the Brennan Center, 1 in 5 local election officials is likely to leave the position by 2024. Most cited ongoing political pressure, along with stress and retirement plans.

Pat Christmas, policy director for the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, said that candidates campaigning on election fraud claims make it harder to teach the public about ballot safeguards in the state’s expanded vote-by-mail system.

“It’s been a hurricane of challenges [in Pennsylvania] between new election law, high stakes elections, divisive politics, and a fragmented information ecosystem,” he told WORLD. “Over time, folks will gain more comfort and familiarity with this new mode of voting, which has numerous checks and safeguards along the way. But it’s certainly going to take longer than it should because of the political rhetoric that gets cranked up around it.”

During the primaries, several Republican candidates said mass fraud led to President Joe Biden’s win. The majority of Republicans who gained Trump’s endorsement also won their primaries. People who say the 2020 election was stolen are on the ballots for roughly half of all governor races in November and more than one-third of secretary of state races, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan States United Action.

Some, like Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate and current state senator Doug Mastriano, are dug in on their positions. Others are starting to scrub fraud claims from their platforms to appeal to more general election voters. Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters of Arizona has deleted sentences from his campaign website that said Trump should have won in 2020. In Michigan, GOP nominee for governor Tudor Dixon has refused to answer questions on whether Trump really won the state, a claim she made during the primaries.

Maricopa County, Ariz., has been in the eye of the election hurricane. It conducted a widespread audit of the presidential election results. In 2020, election workers had to be escorted to their cars through crowds of protesters, some armed. During municipal elections in 2021, a 10-foot security fence was added around a vote tabulation center. Scott Jarrett, co-director of the Elections Department, said the county has also invested in new security cameras that can livestream, glass walls around computer servers, and private security guards. In August, the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force indicted a Missouri man for threatening a Maricopa County Recorder’s Office staffer over the phone. According to the indictment, the caller left a voicemail on a personal cell phone during the 2021 audit, saying the official “will never make it to your next little board meeting.”

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said she had to pay for a private security detail after receiving several death threats and protesters showed up at her home. Since then, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission released new guidelines that allow states to allocate extra funds under the 2002 Help America Vote Act for physical security, along with monitoring social media threats. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat running for reelection, said the state has $8 million in federal election funds that local officials can use for security and countering misinformation. According to a recent University of Michigan study, more than half of state election administrators have faced harassment, threats, or violence.

Back in Wisconsin, staffers have installed acrylic windows and extra security cameras at the City-County Building in Madison, remembering when Republican poll watchers and lawyers swarmed the building in 2020 to contest election results. Just this past April, someone wearing camouflage and a mask took a camera into the city clerk’s office and tried to open locked doors. The person left before police arrived, according to a recent election security task force report. The report recommended threat response training from the sheriff’s department for election workers and more access controls, especially around voting machines and ballot storage.

Other than physical safety additions, most elections departments are working on explaining voting processes when voters have questions about the security of ballots or how they are counted. Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe told local media that she implemented administrative changes following a 2020 audit. She said she is focused on communicating these to departments and preparing extra ballots for the high turnout expected in November.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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