Expert fears partisan actors may replace election workers who quit over threats

It may be election day in 2021, but the attacks on the democratic process during the 2020 election had ripple effects that are still being felt. The latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll this week found that 81% of American adults believe the future of U.S. democracy is under serious threat. Tammy Patrick, senior advisor The Democracy Fund's elections program joins Stephanie Sy to explore the issue.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The ripple effects from President Trump's accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election are still being felt today.

    Our "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll this week found that more than four in five American adults believe that the future of American democracy is under serious threat. And several local and state workers who administer elections throughout the country continue to receive threats.

    Stephanie Sy will have our look at what consequences may result from that.

    But, first, we hear from election officials who shared with us what they have been experiencing.

  • Joseph Kirk, Election Supervisor, Bartow County, Georgia:

    I am Joseph Kirk, election supervisor in Bartow County, Georgia.

    Natalie Adona, Assistant Registrar of Voters, Nevada, California: I'm Natalie Adona. I'm the assistant county clerk recorder for the county of Nevada, California.

    Claire Woodall-Vogg, Executive Director, City of Milwaukee Election Commission: I'm Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission.

  • Michele Carew, Elections Administrator, Hood County, Texas:

    My name is Michele Carew. I'm the outgoing elections administrator for Hood County, Texas.

    I have been working in elections for 14-plus years. While attending the Election Commission meeting back in July, it was a two-hour-long meeting. The public was allowed to come in and speak and talk about things that they felt like I was not doing correctly as an elections administrator. They questioned my integrity as an elections administrator.

  • Man:

    There is no election integrity because she hasn't done her due diligence to make sue she has a good working relationship with the Republican Party.

  • Joseph Kirk:

    I had a phone call after the 2020 presidential election before the January run-off from someone from a different state, who called to inform me how horrible of a person I was, how I was letting the country down, because she wasn't happy with the results of the election in a county that her candidate won by a large margin.

  • Claire Woodall-Vogg:

    In the course of several days, I ended up receiving over 150 threats, many of which were death threats, many of which called me some pretty heinous words, and also had voice-mails telling me I deserved to go before a firing squad.

  • Natalie Adona:

    I also had some voters on the phone who were not so kind.

    One that sort stands out in my mind in particular had been upset because California's identification law does not require us to ask voters for photo I.D. all of the time. He was upset that I followed the law. And when I told him that my job is to follow the laws, and here are all the safeguards that are in place for us to identify any voter fraud, he lost his temper with me.

    He told me that the Nazis also followed the laws blindly and how could I live with myself. That was really hard to hear.

  • Michele Carew:

    So, I had a lot of people ask me, like, Michele, why are you leaving? Why now?

    And my is answer is, I just don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to be a part of these unfounded truths, these constant lies, the constant scrutiny.

  • Claire Woodall-Vogg:

    I'm a mother of two small children. It definitely scared my husband. It scares my parents. But I truly love my job, and I have to just push forward, because it is a field that I love. And I — some part of me thinks the intention of these threats is to get election officials to leave their jobs.

  • Joseph Kirk:

    After the January election, I was having panic attacks in the morning, maybe not for months, but they were definitely for a couple of months, because I had been under such pressure for such a long time that coming out the other side of it almost didn't feel real. And then going back to this election cycle, I was nervous.

  • Natalie Adona:

    We want to be able to give voters the information that they need and also to give our staff maybe a little bit more assurance that we are doing everything that we can to help protect them.

  • Claire Woodall-Vogg:

    We have improved security in our office so that all our staff feel safe coming to work, myself included.

  • Joseph Kirk:

    For the first time, I'm including things like poll worker safety in training sessions or reaching out in a different way to local law enforcement to make sure that we have the resources we need and protection we need if we need it.

  • Michele Carew:

    We don't want any type of applause. We are not looking for that. We just want people to know, your vote counted. It was counted fairly. Your vote was cast. And you were represented well.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Those are just a few of the election officials around the country facing verbal attacks and even death threats from fellow Americans either unhappy with election results, claiming fraud, in all cases questioning the integrity of these public servants.

    Joining me now to discuss this more is Tammy Patrick, senior adviser the Democracy Fund's Elections Program. She is also a former official in the Elections Department of Maricopa, County, Arizona.

    Ms. Patrick, thank you so much, as always, for joining the "NewsHour."

    You heard it, voice-mails, text messages where people are threatening election officials' lives, even their children's lives. It seems beyond the pale. Is this something you ever experienced as an election official?

  • Tammy Patrick, Democracy Fund:

    Well, happy Election Day.

    And, thankfully, it wasn't something that I experienced in my more than a decade of being a local election official. But I will tell you that this is something I have been hearing more and more frequently in the last six, seven, eight, nine months.

    And far too often, we're getting targeted, the election officials that conducted that election freely and fairly. And this is absolutely exemplary of what I'm hearing from all across the country in places where the former president won, in places where the current president won.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You're hearing about election officials of all levels either quitting or retiring out of just these threats worrying them and their families.

    What do you worry will be the consequence of that?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    So vacancies, in and of themselves, are pretty common.

    However, we're seeing a systemic rise in the number of vacancies because people are retiring early, they are leaving the job that they love because of the pressure and the mental toll that it's taking on them.

    This can cause a problem because of a loss of both institutional knowledge for professionals. And then we also have the double problem in this moment of election professionals being replaced by partisan actors, so individuals that will be filling those vacancies with ulterior motives in mind.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And the subtext of what you're saying there, Tammy, is those partisan actors may actually have integrity issues.

    So what are the solutions? There have been attempts by Democratic lawmakers in particular to pass legislation that would increase protections for election workers. The Department of Justice has formed a task force. Is any of that going to work to stop these threats?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    It's going to take all of us. It's going to take accountability all throughout the system.

    So whether it's the federal government having task forces to hold people accountable in this moment or bar associations holding lawyers accountable or voters holding their own elected representatives accountable at the ballot box, it's going to take all of us to make sure that we get our democracy back on track.

    As we go into today's election, we know that there are many local races that are up for grabs today, as it were. And as we move into 2022, there are even more local elections that will be held. So secretaries of state that are running on platforms that the 2020 election was illegitimate or stolen need to be held accountable.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, it is Election Day, Tammy, as you mentioned.

    And there's this close governor's race in Virginia where the Republican candidate there has brought up election integrity, so to speak.

    Do you see today and that race a test or harbinger of what may be coming in the midterms next year or even the presidential election after that in 2024?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    All the elections we have seen so far this year, including the California recall election, have — are all giving us an indication of what to expect in the future.

    So, we have seen candidates both in California and in Virginia calling into question the legitimacy of an election if they were to lose. Now, that is not only playing out at the state level statewide, but we're seeing that narrative also be used by candidates in local races, so calling into question the ability for anyone to fairly lose an election.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tammy Patrick with the Democracy Fund, thank you so much.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    Thank you for having me.

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