Like democracy, election workers are under assault with many fearing for the future

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Detroit May 17, 2022 | Ken Coleman

By Jon King, Michigan Advance

This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy.

They are considered “essential” to ensuring the success of elections, and yet almost a third of election workers are believed to have left their job at least in part because of fears for their safety, increased threats or intimidation.

That’s according to a study earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice, which also found that three in five election officials are concerned that those same threats and harassment will make it harder to retain or recruit election workers in the future.

Experts have been concerned about increased attacks on elections volunteers and staff since the 2020 presidential election that former President Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden. They’ve been the targets in myriad “Big Lie” conspiracy theories that Trump didn’t lose, with some supporters refusing to accept the results and subsequent audits confirming the outcome. 

Most recently, clerks across the country have been inundated with demands from Trump supporters for 2020 voting records. It’s a coordinated campaign that could jam up preparations for the November election, the Washington Post reports.     

One Michigan election official who sees the peril to democracy when those tasked with ensuring the proper running of elections are being intimidated away from that role is Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

“Make no mistake about it, election workers are the heroes of our democracy,” Byrum, a Democratic former state lawmaker, told the Michigan Advance. “They’re everyday people who want to strengthen our democracy and assist their neighbors in the democratic process. They’re our friends, our neighbors, our kids, soccer coach, and deacons in our churches. But they have been vilified.”

And yet that vilification is only increasing.

According to a statewide survey conducted by the University of Michigan, more than half of local governments in Michigan are experiencing some form of harassment or other abuse from the public.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, found that officials from 53% of Michigan’s 1,856 general purpose local governments report harassment, threats or violence against members of the local government, including themselves. 

“Unfortunately, these findings are indicators of the problems facing our democracy today. Local leaders generally want their residents engaged in their government’s work, but not like this,” said Tom Ivacko, executive director of CLOSUP. “We’re very concerned about the health of our democracy, and will continue to monitor it for growing threats.”

Barry Mulso is the elections clerk for the city of Hamtramck. He tells the Advance when he began working there in July 2020, there were no issues and the job was enjoyable, but that soon changed.

“It started really nicely, actually,” said Mulso. “It really wasn’t much of a deal and then all this election denying started and that’s when the real hostility happened.”

Mulso said because a majority of Hamtramck residents are immigrants and new citizens, voting for them is a “really big deal,” adding that they believe in the system and want to be part of it. So his experience has been that the residents he serves are very supportive.

However, Mulso says the hostility they began receiving after the November 2020 election has been amplified because of Hamtramck’s Muslim population.

“We get a lot of phone calls, a lot of blocked calls, a lot of private calls from out of the state. And that’s where we get a lot of the hostility from. We get threats like, ‘We’re gonna come down there, defend democracy by whatever means we have to’ and things like that. So the threats are thinly veiled, but they’re definitely there.”

The effect of the harassment has been tangible, according to Mulso.

“It’s been really demoralizing, to be perfectly honest with you,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are wide-eyed idealists. They want to be involved in this whole process because they’ve heard about democracy and now they’re experiencing democracy. People come from countries where they don’t know what a legitimate election is and now through citizens and participating here, it really affects them quite a bit. I mean, I’m a little bit scared to tell you the truth from some of the stories I’ve heard from other people that I know about, the direct threats they’ve received. We always kind of wonder when it’s gonna be our turn.”

Byrum says if the level of harassment and intimidation continues to deplete the number of potential election workers, that will play right into the hands of those seeking to undermine free and fair elections.

Benson says poll workers breaking the law ‘will be swiftly removed’

“The closing of the polls, the printing of the totals and then the transmission of all that stuff to the county clerk’s office, physically and electronically, would certainly be delayed,” she said. “And that is of concern because we historically have had a peaceful transition of power and that was at risk and under threat in 2020, and I think the longer it takes to provide official results and then ultimately the certified results, that increases the opportunity for those who want to continue to stoke fear and attack the elections. It gives them more time to do that.”

Byrum is also concerned that the public doesn’t truly appreciate the danger that democracy is facing considering that many of those who are seeking elective office are simultaneously sowing the seeds of doubt about the integrity of that system. 

“There was a FiveThirtyEight story that indicated more than one in two Americans will have an election denier on the ballot this fall,” she said. “I mean, we know in Michigan, the Republican secretary of state candidate [Kristina Karamo] is an election denier and she wants to run to be the chief election official of the state of Michigan. So yes, our democracy is absolutely under attack, but I don’t think the average citizen realizes that yet. But hopefully they realize it before it’s too late.”

At a hearing last month of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, detailed her first-hand experience dealing with harassment and intimidation, including an incident in which people gathered in front of her home, using bullhorns to yell threats and obscenities as she was trying to put her young son to bed.

She described an “omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our home,” and pleaded with senators to pass additional protections for her and her colleagues.

The hearing also featured testimony from Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr., who said the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force has investigated more than 1,000 complaints against election workers since its creation in 2021, with more than 10% of those complaints meeting the threshold for a federal criminal investigation.

But the threats and intimidation of elections officials and workers don’t necessarily have to result in actual violence for there to be a deleterious effect.

“We see that even in jurisdictions where officials have not experienced harassment, threats or violence, more than a quarter say simply the possibility of abuse is having a negative effect,” said Debra Horner, senior program manager for the CLOSUP survey. “For example, local leaders see it having a negative impact on residents’ civic engagement, such as speaking at meetings and serving on committees.”

Greg Kihn worked as a poll captain in Livingston County’s Marion Township for the August primary. He notes that the community is overall very conservative, and most of the skepticism about the integrity of elections has come from those on the right. 

“Well, right off the bat, I’d say they’re not asking you to change their mind,” said Kihn. “Their mind is made up.” 

However, he related one interaction with a woman who was suspicious of the absentee ballot process. He says after answering all of her questions, she still seemed skeptical. But he believes simple logic really should eliminate most of the conspiracy theories.

“To this one person I said, other than someone following a mailman around stealing a ballot out of the mailbox, filling it out and their signature passing inspection by the clerk or the assistant clerk, there’s no way that those can be compromised. And then as far as the actual Election Day work in the precincts, it is a pretty rigid structure the way things must be done. They’d have to hijack the machines, which now we’re getting into quite a conspiracy and a lot of people have to be in on it and nobody’s talking about it and there’d be a lot to overcome to do it. So I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but I feel it’s very unlikely.”

Alexis Howard is a University of Michigan student who lives in Pinckney, also in Livingston County. She told the Advance that she began working elections in Hamburg Township in November 2018. 

While she wasn’t yet 18, she had become politically aware and wanted to contribute even though she couldn’t vote yet. 

“I absolutely love working the elections,” said Howard. “I think it’s just a really cool way to get involved, to help your community. It’s fun. Like my neighbors come in and I hand them their ballot and explain what it is.”

As to the level of skepticism about the election process and the political divide it has exacerbated, Howard says her experience has been positive.

I know that I’m helping a lot of people of the other party to cast their votes and that doesn’t matter at all. I think that it’s so cool just to be able to help everybody have their voice, regardless of if I … agree with their votes or not.

– Alexis Howard, a Hamburg Township elections worker

“It’s weird for me being in a district that doesn’t align with how I identify politically,” she said. “I know that I’m helping a lot of people of the other party to cast their votes and that doesn’t matter at all. I think that it’s so cool just to be able to help everybody have their voice, regardless of if I … agree with their votes or not.” 

Howard notes that election workers have to identify their party affiliation and that whenever they are tasked with helping someone, somebody from the other party has to come along. And so even though she and other election workers each fully know they have different political viewpoints, it has never been a point of contention.

“No, absolutely not. These people are my neighbors. I’m also the youngest one by like 40 years,” she laughs. “It’s like the next youngest person is probably 40 years older than me. And then it’s all like retired people essentially. I’m the young one of the group. I think it’s cool that we just work so well as a team.”

But some election workers like Mulso worry that the atmosphere is being irretrievably poisoned so that people of good conscience are demoralized into avoiding participation.

“People are being tough now and they’re sticking it out, but they’re having conversations with others that I know they’re like, ‘This isn’t worth it. I don’t need my family to be threatened. If these people think that this is such a crooked damn operation and they wanna take it over, let ’em.’ 

“I’ve heard that sort of conversation,” said Mulso. “In my mind, I’m like, ‘No. We can’t let them take it over because they’re the ones that are really the threat.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.