With violent rhetoric from the right intensifying, some election officials are bolstering their defenses. Others are quitting.
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Election workers at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Phoenix in August. The county has built up its election security measures since 2020.
In Wisconsin, one of the nation’s key swing states, cameras and plexiglass now fortify the reception area of a county election office in Madison, the capital, after a man wearing camouflage and a mask tried to open locked doors during an election in April.
In another bellwether area, Maricopa County, Ariz., where beleaguered election workers had to be escorted through a scrum of election deniers to reach their cars in 2020, a security fence was added to protect the perimeter of a vote tabulation center.
And in Colorado, the state’s top election official, Jena Griswold, the secretary of state and a Democrat, resorted to paying for private security out of her budget after a stream of threats.
As the nation hurtles closer to the midterm elections, those who will oversee them are taking a range of steps to beef up security for themselves, their employees, polling places and even drop boxes, tapping state and federal funding for a new set of defenses. The heightened vigilance comes as violent rhetoric from the right intensifies and as efforts to intimidate election officials by those who refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election become commonplace.
Discussing security in a recent interview with The Times, Ms. Griswold, 37, said that threats of violence had kept her and her aides up late at night as they combed through comments on social media.
At a right-wing group’s gathering in Colorado earlier this year, she said, a prominent election denier with militia ties suggested that she should be killed. That was when she concluded that her part-time security detail provided by the Colorado State Patrol wasn’t enough.
“They called for me to be hung,” said Ms. Griswold, who is running for re-election. “It’s a long weekend. I’m home alone, and I only get seven hours of State Patrol coverage.”
Even in places where there was never a shadow of a doubt about the political leanings of the electorate, election officials have found themselves under threat. In a Texas county that President Donald J. Trump won by 59 percentage points in 2020, all three election officials recently resigned, with at least one citing repeated death threats and stalking.
One in five local election officials who responded to a survey earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice said that they were “very” or “somewhat unlikely” to continue serving through 2024.
The collective angst is a recurring theme at workshops and conferences attended by election officials, who say it is not unusual for them exchange anecdotes about threatening messages or harassment at the grocery store. The discussions have turned at times to testing drop boxes — a focus of right-wing attacks on mail-in voting — to see if they can withstand being set on fire.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
With the primaries winding down, both parties are starting to shift their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.
- Battleground Pennsylvania: Few states feature as many high-stakes, competitive races as Pennsylvania, which has emerged as the nation’s center of political gravity.
- How a G.O.P. Haul Vanished: Last year, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans was smashing fund-raising records. Now, most of the money is gone.
- The Dobbs Decision’s Effect: After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the number of women signing up to vote surged in some states.
- Digital Pivot: At least 10 G.O.P. candidates in competitive races have updated their websites to minimize their ties to Donald J. Trump or to adjust their stances on abortion.
Benjamin Hovland, a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, described the intimidation campaign as pervasive.
“This isn’t a red-state issue or a blue-state issue,” Mr. Hovland said in a recent interview. “This is a national issue, where the professional public servants that run our elections have been subjected to an unprecedented level of threats, harassment and intimidating behavior.”
In guidance issued in June, the Election Assistance Commission allowed for federal election grants to be used for physical security services and to monitor threats on social media.
ImageA poll worker sorting absentee ballots in Madison, Wis., in August. Officials recently budgeted $95,000 to start designing a more secure election center in the county.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times
In Wisconsin’s Dane County, which includes Madison, partisan poll watchers and a brigade of lawyers with the Trump campaign descended in 2020 to dispute the election results. County officials recently budgeted $95,000 to start designing a new and more secure election center.
The move came after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducted a risk assessment in April on the current election offices for the county and city, which are housed in the same building.
“It’s kind of a sieve,” Scott McDonell, a Democrat and the county’s clerk for the past decade, said in an interview.
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But with a new center likely to be a long way from fruition, more immediate steps were taken. In the past six months, security cameras and plexiglass were installed, according to Mr. McDonell, 53.
But those measures are just a “stopgap,” Mr. McDonell said, recalling the April episode when a masked man tried to enter several restricted areas during local elections.
“He’s all in camo, shaking on doors, trying to get into spaces and filming everything,” Mr. McDonell said. “That would never happen in a properly secured, laid-out building that was designed for elections.”
The emphasis on security has extended to the municipal level, with Dane County training local clerks for the first time last month on de-escalation techniques and how to respond to an active shooter, Mr. McDonell said.
Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, which includes Phoenix, was a nexus of efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The security fence erected around the county’s tabulation and elections center last year is 10 feet tall. Its purpose: to prevent a repeat of November 2020, when election workers were surrounded by a crowd of Trump loyalists, some of them armed, as the workers tried to get to their cars.
The security buildup didn’t end there. The county added new security cameras, including 23 with livestreaming capability, installed glass walls around a computer server and hired private security patrols to augment its own guards, said Scott Jarrett, the nonpartisan co-director of county’s elections department.
A layer of protective film was also applied to all of building’s windows to make them harder to break and to obscure employees’ faces, especially at night.
“Even someone with a hammer who was banging against it, I think the manufacturer said that someone could be doing that for a consistent five minutes, and it’s not going to break,” Mr. Jarrett said.
The county even built a vault with a fire-suppression system to hold ballots, according to Mr. Jarrett.
“There’s not an election official probably in the country right now who doesn’t have some concerns,” he said of the stressful working conditions for election workers. “Democracy, I think, is coming under assault.”
Michigan’s top election official, Jocelyn Benson, 44, who is a Democrat, has a security detail from the state when she needs it. In an interview, she described a time in December 2020 when a group gathered outside her Detroit home to call for her to overturn the victory of Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Michigan. Some of them were armed.
“I was about to put my son to bed, and dozens of individuals descended on our home,” Ms. Benson said. A neighborhood security guard initially was the only one separating the home from the crowd, which shouted obscenities that she said woke up her neighbors.
“It was a very haunting moment,” said Ms. Benson, who was interviewed about the confrontation as part of the congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. “What it has created is an omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our daily lives.”
Michigan received $8 million in federal election funds that Ms. Benson said local election officials could spend on physical security and efforts to tamp down misinformation.
Still, in testimony last month before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms. Benson urged the federal government to set aside more money for security.
“To protect democracy, we must protect election officials,” Ms. Benson, who is running for re-election, said on Thursday.
In Colorado, Mr. Trump’s allies have frequently tussled over election oversight with Ms. Griswold, who said that her office had compiled a 60-page PDF detailing the hundreds of threats that she had received.
ImageJena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state, resorted to paying for private security out of her budget after a stream of threats. Credit…Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
On two occasions, the threats have led to criminal charges: one man was arrested in July over a threatening phone call, and in June, a Nebraska man pleaded guilty to threatening Ms. Griswold on Instagram. It was the first conviction resulting from the work of a Justice Department task force focused on the intimidation of election officials.
Ms. Griswold drew a comparison between those making violent threats toward election officials and the people who took part in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“We have to take threats of violence seriously,” Ms. Griswold said. “We have to disincentivize it.”