Election officials brace for conspiracy-fueled threat but hope for the best

A line of early voters stretches outside the building on October 17, 2022, as early voting for the midterm elections begins at the Civic Services Center in Columbus, Georgia.

Cheney Orr | Reuters

Election officials in the nation’s hottest jurisdictions are bracing for a new wave of conspiracy-fueled threats despite confidence in their ability to carry out their jobs under close scrutiny. says

In interviews with a dozen local election officials in battleground states of Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, most said the election denial they had fought for the past two years. and expressed concern that conspiracy theories were already breathing new life. Incident at a mailbox in Arizona For example, Pennsylvania.

Those officials also warned that the close proximity of the contest and vote count rules, among other possible factors, could delay results in states. It can lead to new rounds of intrigue and suggestions for cheating, leading to new harassment. Still, they left no doubt about their ability to make safe and accurate counts.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world are on us,” said the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Oversight Board and Maricopa County, which has been at the center of Trump’s election denial in Arizona. ‘s Bill Gates told NBC News.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, local election officials became frequent targets of former President Donald Trump supporters who backed false claims of election fraud.

Misleading or blatantly false conspiracy theories about voting machines, the secure drop-boxes used to collect vote-by-mail ballots, and the election administrators themselves have spread like wildfire online, killing the former president and his close associates. It was routinely amplified at the national and state levels by allies. These allegations persist despite the lack of evidence of widespread election fraud, Number of civil servants nationwide quit his job amid a barrage of accusations and personal attacks. Election officials say they are still battling the fallout.

“Unfortunately, a very similar situation with a lot of suspicion and anger continues,” Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the Pennsylvania County Commission, said in an interview.

Warning signs that some officials are on edge

NBC News interviewed election officials in six of the seven battleground states closest to the presidential gap in 2020. 60% of complaints Reports to the Justice Department’s Intimidation Task Force on Election Officials that met the criteria for further investigation began the year it was operational.

Across these battlefields, these officials said they were vigilant about warning signs they believed showed a potentially disruptive force in the 2022 elections. , including coercive tactics that target themselves and voters. There is a growing pile of lawsuits already filed challenging certain voting rules. Candidates who refuse to say they accept the results of the election and the specter of delays in detailing tallies and fierce races give conspiracy theories more time and air to ignite, intensifying the cycle. allow you to

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell, who is the elections officer for Wisconsin’s second-most populous county, said in recent weeks that he’s been receiving phone calls from individuals spewing out theories about which votes will or won’t count. and the number of e-mails is increasing.

He referred one email from an individual who had requested access to “genuinely secure data” to a Department of Justice task force and asked the countywide government to consider potential scenarios on Election Day. The building where his office is located recently installed plexiglass barriers, panic buttons, and CCTV cameras in every room of the building.

“I hope this is all an overreaction,” McDonnell said. People who could show up at the polling place with fake lists trying to challenge voters.”

McDonnell’s concerns come as alarm bells have been sounded by federal law enforcement agencies. An assessment prepared last week jointly by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Capitol Police found that militants in the country “posed a significant threat to the 2022 midterm elections,” with election officials and officials He said he could find it “attractive”. target. As of June, federal investigators have already investigated more than 1,000 cases in the year the federal task force charged with threats to election officials has been operating.

More recently, the Justice Department announced that an Iowa man had been arrested for leaving threatening voicemails to local residents. election administrator Officials associated with the Arizona state attorney general’s office cited false fraud claims and threatened hanging. moreover, armed individuals have It was seen monitoring Dropbox in Arizona. A judge on Wednesday ordered to stay at least 250 feet from the location.

Other officials on these battlefields said they each saw explosion Partisan poll watchers — people who want to oversee polls and potentially challenge individual votes. Republican National Committee, State Parties, Allies Tout Efforts To recruit Train poll monitors ahead of the 2022 poll.

Cheryl Guy, Clerk of Antrim County, Michigan, said: At the heart of the baseless pro-Trump conspiracy after the 2020 vote —In her area, it is estimated that the number of poll observers has increased by about 90%, but monitoring polls “gets boring after a while”, so it’s difficult for groups to leave without causing major problems. She said she hopes

But there are some concerns, including in Georgia. individual When activist group It has already organized challenges over the eligibility of tens of thousands of voters across the state. Bartow County Election Superintendent Joseph Kirk, the chief elections official in the red county in the northwest corner of the state, said he would “keep local law enforcement on standby” on election day to deal with confusing pollsters. Stated.

Election officials also said courts could bring chaos to the process if results were contested weeks after the vote. It will open them up as targets for harassment and intimidation.

As The Associated Press reportedmore than 100 lawsuits filed primarily by Republicans have already been filed before Election Day this year. is intended for

“That’s probably the biggest concern,” said Leslie Orshe, Republican chairman of the Butler County Commission in Pennsylvania. ”

Is it possible another wrinkle? Candidates who refuse to accept election results, much like Trump has since 2020.

Gates said, “I hope we don’t repeat that because it’s so damaging to our democracy, especially here in Arizona,” he said, adding that some Republican candidates were Rejected Promise to accept their election results.

One problem that can arise in some battleground states is the sheer amount of time that legally-mandated recounts take in very tight races.

“When measures are taken to significantly lengthen or slow down the process of who actually wins the election, extreme ideas suddenly emerge. [part of] That’s the process,” said Rick Pildes, an election expert and professor at New York University School of Law.

“In the climate we’re in, it’s a dangerous situation,” he added.

“Dangerous Downward Cycle”

The devastating incident has yet to go viral, but many election officials and experts fear it is happening. It also seems to be firmly rooted in the conspiracy theories that surfaced after the 2020 election.

“Not necessarily because of direct threats or anything like that, but we’re just into 2020 and because of everything that’s happened there, there are concerns about the safety of election officials. Our county. are very cautious and they are safe on Election Day,” Steve Curry, executive director of the Michigan County Association, told NBC News.

In Maricopa County, Gates said he was working with local law enforcement to ensure the safety of election officials, adding, “I’ve seen some of the most despicable emails and social media posts here recently.” Stated.

Election officials are also grappling with the massive exodus of officials after the 2020 election.

In Nevada, chief election officials in 10 of the state’s 17 counties have decided not to resign, retire, or seek re-election after Election Day 2020, the secretary of state said. Swarms of Election Officials Across Georgia Quit Their position after the 2020 election. And in Pennsylvania nearly 50 election officials left Posts within the last two years.

Some people interviewed by NBC News argued that the field has proven resilient, with other officials within these election offices bolstered as a result of their resignations, and in some cases, 2020. He pointed out that it has become easier to recruit

“I’ve seen a lot of people say, ‘They’re not going to get rid of me. I’m in to protect democracy,'” said Mark Evans, public affairs director for Pima County, Arizona. “And that seems to have been the catalyst.”

But even in some of these optimistic scenarios, “there’s no doubt that organizational knowledge is lost,” said Shaffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania county commission, and local administrators on the count. “So for sure it took me a while to get it.” [new] People are speeding up. “

That said, Lawrence Norden, senior director of election and government programs at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, remains one bright spot in what would otherwise lead to a “very dangerous cycle.” .

“When election officials and election officials walk away or stop coming in, more errors can result, which can foster disinformation,” he said.

Working in concert with all other factors, including the “increase in partisan election observers seeking to ignite further conspiracy theories”, these “lead to less trust in the electoral process and, as a result, more threat,” Norden explained.

“This is a dangerous downward cycle,” he said. Election officials brace for conspiracy-fueled threat but hope for the best

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