Election Workers Are Bracing for Another Barrage of Trump Threats

When Lisa Deeley first started her work as an election administrator in Philadelphia, it was a low-profile job. “I was more like an event planner,” she recalled. “We put the machines out, made sure the tables were there, the lights were on. People voted, we came, we counted the votes.” Then came 2020, when she and other election workers became the target of an intense smear campaign by then president Donald Trump and his allies as they sought to overturn his election loss—particularly in swing states like Pennsylvania, which had been crucial to Joe Biden’s victory. “Suddenly,” Deeley said, “you’re the bull’s-eye.”

Deeley, then the chair of the Philadelphia board of commissioners, was subjected to threats from Trump’s supporters that for a time required her to have a security detail. “It was the most unbelievable experience,” Deeley told me. “It should never happen.”

Her account is, of course, just one frame in America’s never-ending feature of election chaos. According to a Brennan Center poll last year, nearly a third of election officials have been subject to intimidation, abused, or harassed as a result of their job—and nearly half say they fear for their colleagues’ safety. Perhaps unsurprisingly, about 11% of respondents said they may leave the profession before the 2024 election.

The Justice Department vowed in January to “ensure that all qualified voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots and have their votes counted free of discrimination, intimidation, or criminal activity.” Meanwhile in Congress, Democratic senators Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin have led legislative efforts to address the issue by reintroducing their Election Worker Protection Act last year. But the bill is languishing in the Rules and Administration Committee, which Klobuchar chairs, and seems unlikely to pass this year with a GOP-controlled lower chamber.

All things considered, some of the most meaningful action has come at the state level—including in Pennsylvania, where Democratic governor Josh Shapiro recently announced the establishment of the state Election Threats Task Force. “We are working to continue defending Pennsylvanians’ fundamental freedoms and ensure we have a free, fair, safe, secure election this November,” Shapiro said in a statement.

Still, the lingering atmosphere of hostility since 2020 has raised concerns among experts and observers about the election process this fall—especially with Trump, the source of much of the hostility, once again poised to appear on the ballot as one of two major candidates. “The more that he is in the spotlight, the more he has the platform to unleash the extremism we’ve been seeing through his rhetoric,” as Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who has herself been the target of pro-Trump extremists, told me recently. Her state has implemented a number of election-security laws since 2020, including one that makes election workers a protected class. “Leadership does matter,” she added, “and when you have a failed leader like Donald Trump willing to do anything to grab on to power, it leads to really dangerous circumstances.”

America got a taste of those circumstances on January 6, 2021, as months of “rigged election” conspiracy theories, harassment of election officials (and even individual poll workers), and underhanded schemes to overturn Trump’s election loss gave way to violent insurrection.

Now, as he runs to return to power, Trump is once again raising the prospect of political violence: A rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by incarcerated insurrectionists, whom he describes as “hostages,” has been playing at his campaign rallies; he has continued to spread lies about the 2020 election; and his rhetoric has become even more apocalyptic, suggesting recently that there would be a “bloodbath” for the economy—and seemingly the country as a whole—if he did not win in November.

“If Trump should lose, I fear that the country will be in a civil war” because of the former president’s rhetoric, said Robert Stein, an elections expert at Rice University. “And I do think there’ll be violence.”

Surprisingly, Stein told me, the hostile environment over the last four years hasn’t seemed to deter temporary poll workers; his research indicates they remain “very committed” to the groundwork of democracy. “They take seriously what they’re doing,” he added. But harassment and intimidation against election officials like Deeley and Griswold could still “undermine their ability to do their jobs,” warned Jill Habig, founder of the Public Rights Project, the legal advocacy nonprofit that has set out to support election administrators against efforts to undermine the process.

Election systems, as Habig told me, are facing “death by a thousand cuts”: The threats have caused retention issues among officials, she said, adding to concerns that election deniers could get their hands on the gears of the election process itself this November. (As Rolling Stone reported recently, officials in at least eight states have either delayed or refused to certify election results since 2020.) Meanwhile, election offices have been overwhelmed with frivolous records requests meant to put “sand in the gears” of the process, said Habig, a former adviser to Kamala Harris. “Each of these individual things are not January 6 or some major, headline-grabbing effort,” Habig told me. “The problem is that, in aggregate, it really starts to tear at the fabric of our election system, which is already pretty resource-strapped, and offices that are still, in many ways, staffed for a pre-2016 world.”

All of this is almost certain to put America’s democratic process through a major stress test in seven months. Deeley, who remains a member of the Philadelphia board of commissioners but no longer leads it, said she is bracing for the political temperature to start “climbing higher again” as general election season begins in earnest. Has that ever made her consider leaving the profession herself? “Honestly, yes,” she told me. “If I’m being honest, sometimes I think, you know, What the heck—this is unbelievable.” But then, “there’s the other side: I feel a responsibility,” she said. “So I’m not going anywhere.”

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