An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Death threats and harassment: 2024 election workers already are scared

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump keeps on lying, saying he won the 2020 election, and that has local election officials fearing for their safety. NPR's Chris Arnold has been digging into this and finds election workers all over the country are already facing threats as they brace for 2024.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: This past midterm election, things were getting pretty intense at the local elections office in Coos County, Ore.

DEDE MURPHY: We would have people in this hallway trying to take pictures of everything we're doing with their phones.

ARNOLD: Dede Murphy, the county clerk at the time, says local people, apparently juiced up on misinformation, were camped out inside the building day after day.

MURPHY: And some of them were very mean.

ARNOLD: Even though a couple of years before, Trump won in this county with 59% of the vote, Murphy and the other election workers say people would still yell in their faces about voter fraud. Over about a month, a security guard stopped people from bringing a total of 20 guns and 60 knives or other weapons inside. And beyond that, some of the altercations were really frightening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED 911 OPERATOR: 911. What's your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: Hi. Yes, I work with the Coos County Clerk's Office. I have had somebody following me.

ARNOLD: During the general election last year, a county worker called 911 four times in a single day as he was driving around collecting ballots from drop boxes. He says a woman in a big Jeep Gladiator truck was following him, videotaping him at each drop box. He says she was armed with a handgun on her belt.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: I see the Jeep Gladiator turn around the corner and drive very quickly down the road and then slam on the brakes and skid to a stop just past me. And then she leaned out of the car and looked at me and yelled, you [expletive] traitor.

ARNOLD: After that, he says, the woman tailgated him right on his bumper, driving erratically, sometimes swerving around next to him.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: I was terrified. The swerving around my car - I was worried that I might not make it off that road.

ARNOLD: More than two years after January 6, Donald Trump's lie that he won the election is alive and well in a large chunk of the Republican Party, and the misinformation about voter fraud is endangering the people whose job it is to conduct elections. NPR obtained contact information for thousands of local election workers and attempted to reach them. Workers and officials across 22 different states told NPR that they've received threats or felt unsafe doing their jobs. Many didn't want to use their names for fear of being further targeted.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #2: I actually bring a weapon with me every day to work.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #3: We have a lot of just general [expletive] yous. You're trying to rig the election.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #4: They said that they were coming for my family and somebody would have to pay for this.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #5: The threat was specifically that the following week that I would not be alive. And then my dog was poisoned.

ARNOLD: The dog barely survived. An official in Arizona tells NPR that somebody threatened to murder him and his children. The FBI arrested that person. Of course, there is absolutely no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Lawsuits alleging fraud have been thrown out of court by judges all over the country. These election officials are just trying to do their jobs. The Republicans, Democrats, independents - they're all dealing with this. And it's everyone from top state officials to lower-level county workers who handle ballots or even senior citizen volunteers. David Becker heads up the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research.

DAVID BECKER: Election officials have been under siege. They've been threatened, abused and harassed for nearly three years now. And it's getting worse.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #6: I am very nervous about the presidential year.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: I'm nervous about what that's going to look like too.

ARNOLD: Back in Coos County, Ore. the worker who says he was chased in his car and his wife both work in the local elections office, so they've both been dealing with all this, also while having their first baby. She was nine months pregnant this past election.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #6: During that time, I was scared, and I didn't get to feel safe at home either.

ARNOLD: She also doesn't want to use her name. She says the couple was followed home from work.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: Our garbage cans were gone through. There was mail strewn across their yard.

ARNOLD: Oh, you mean like in a cop show or something where they, like, go through the garbage?

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #1: Yeah. Yeah, just like that.

ARNOLD: The couple doesn't think that the community here realizes what they've been going through at the elections office.

UNIDENTIFIED ELECTION WORKER #6: It felt like we were under attack, constant phone calls and people coming in and yelling at us. And at one point, as the sheriff was leading us outside, some people were recording and laughing, like that's so funny that we're so scared that we had to have the sheriff walk us out. That was just really crazy.

JOHN SWEET: Absolutely inexcusable that that would happen.

ARNOLD: John Sweet is a Coos County commissioner. He's 83 years old, and he's a Republican who does not believe in the voter fraud conspiracy theories.

SWEET: You know, it's a form of mob activity in a way. You know, the mob takes on a personality of its own that's probably different than the prevalent personality of individual members of the mob. I don't think it was unique to our county. It was a national thing.

ARNOLD: Everybody remembers the spectacle of the mob at the Capitol on January 6, but of course those people came from somewhere, and they went back home, where some of them, outside of the national spotlight, are carrying on the fight. And that's what's been happening here in Coos County.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROD TAYLOR: You know what? I'm proud to have been there...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

TAYLOR: ...On January 6.

ARNOLD: That's Rod Taylor, a current county commissioner who was at January 6, and that was him talking on a local conservative talk radio show. He's now part of a local election denier group whose members, officials say, have been confronting election workers.

Did you realize that there are election workers here in the county who fear for their safety because of this?

TAYLOR: Yeah, of course I'm aware of that.

ARNOLD: But, Taylor says, he never threatened election workers himself, and he's not responsible for it.

TAYLOR: The fact of the matter is, when you've got a large group of people, it's sometimes like herding cats, and you cannot control what individuals do.

JULIE BRECKE: My biggest worry is that people aren't going to want to do the job anymore.

ARNOLD: Over at the elections office, Julie Brecke is the new county clerk. She's trying to figure out how to avoid a repeat of last year in the upcoming presidential race. Already, one election worker has resigned.

BRECKE: It's an important job. And the people that work in this office - if they're harassed constantly and made to look like villains, then eventually that weighs on people. I don't want to lose good people over harassment based on misinformation.

ARNOLD: Right now, Donald Trump, the election denialist in chief, is the GOP front-runner in the next presidential election, but that's more than a year away. So state, federal and local governments do have time to try to come up with ways to lower the temperature and keep election workers safe, if they don't wait till the last minute.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.