Individual threats, electoral lies and punishing new laws anger election officials, raising fears of mass exodus

Witzel-Bahl said an online discussion thread began weighing in on the weapons and ammunition used against him. There was also talk of lynching.

So, when it came time to renew her employment contract, she struggled.

“Every day for over a year, I just kept going back and forth,” the 47-year-old said recently. “Is it worth it? Is it time to do something else where there’s less stress, more reasonable working hours, and certainly no death threats?”

Last month, Witzel-Bahl decided to commit to another five years in his position. But their dilemma underscores the difficult choices facing election observers as they become increasingly political targets in an age of widespread lies about electoral fraud. Experts in the field fear a mass exodus of administrators that will change the way elections are conducted – and endanger democracy itself.

In total, more than 8,000 local officials oversee U.S. elections, according to the Election and Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. There is no central match of departures, but researchers see warning signs.

For example, about 35% of local election officials report that they are eligible to retire before the next presidential election in 2024, According to a survey conducted in 2020 by the Center at Reed College and The Democracy Fund.

In Pennsylvania’s major battleground state, at least a third of election directors have resigned since the fall of 2019, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

And nearly one in three local election officials were polled in a recent poll by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice say they feel insecure because of their job. (Last month, the US Department of Justice Announced a task force to address the rise in threats Against election officials.)

Administration officials told CNN that Vice President Kamala Harris is ready to meet with election officials and election workers on Wednesday to listen to their concerns and show solidarity with them.

Paul Groenke, who teaches political science at Reed and founded the Voting Information Center, said, “What I’ve heard from state officials and local people is, it’s incredibly tense, that they can’t take it anymore. “

“We are in danger of losing a generation of professional election expertise,” said David Baker, who runs the non-profit Center for Election Innovation and Research, which works with election administrators. “It would be bad enough if it wasn’t even combined with the fact that they could be replaced with partisan hackery.”

In several major presidential battlefields, Republicans who share some of former President Donald Trump’s views on election fraud are now running to oversee elections in their states. They include Georgia Representative Jody Haise, one of 147 congressional Republicans who voted against validating President Joe Biden’s victory even after violent pro-Trump mobs stormed the US Capitol. He is hoping to oust Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the Republican primary.

raffensperger Opposed Trump’s Efforts to “Find the Vote” To reverse Biden’s victory in Georgia.

new laws

Election officials still grapple with threats and intimidation attempts during the 2020 election, facing new penalties and restrictions on their authority this year under laws advanced by Republican-controlled state legislatures.

For example, a measure sought by Republicans in the Texas House would make it a crime for election officials to distribute unsolicited state ballot applications. and a far-reaching election law The bill, signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in May, fines up to $25,000 on any observer who leaves a ballot drop box unattended.

Wesley Wilcox, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, which represents the state’s 67 county election administrators, said the new state law provides some valuable tools, such as a new load test for the online voting registration system. (Last year the state’s online voter registration portal crashed on the last day of registration.)

But Wilcox, who runs the election in Florida’s Marion County, said the job of guarding the ballots would marginally increase his election costs.

“I’m going to hire two people at each early polling place to oversee the drop boxes in case one of them has to go to the bathroom or something,” said Wilcox, a first-time Republican elected in 2012. Nine different sites. I can’t be on nine different sites. I have to hire people to make sure I don’t get fined.”

Other new laws ban private donations for election management.

Fueled largely by contributions from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, the non-profit Center for Tech and Civic Life, Distributed some $350 million in COVID-response grants To approximately 2,500 local election agencies in 49 states.

Conservatives argued that it is inappropriate for outside organizations to subsidize a government function, and have questioned whether the funding disproportionately aided large cities that vote for Democrats as they were trying to ban the practice. Proceed to.

In Madison, Witzel-Bahl said that a $1.2 million grant from the group offered a significant lifeline, helping to reduce excess pay for its overworked employees, as well as providing services such as drop boxes and mail. To finance other pandemic-related expenses.

“It was the only way we were able to pay hazard pay to our employees,” she said. (Witzel-Bahl has no party affiliation; Wisconsin does not have partisan voter registration.)

personal toll

Witzel-Bahl said she was constantly worried about her employees and family over the past year.

On the advice of the police, he locked the office and screened the visitors. At home, she used to keep her blinds closed and irritated that someone was harming her teenage daughter. “That was the worst part of the whole thing — knowing it could have negatively impacted a member of my family,” she said.

The ugliness also made a personal impression on Seth Bluestein, Chief Deputy Commissioner to Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt. Bluestein helped oversee the counting of mail ballots in Philadelphia last November.

In that role, he had become the target of threats and anti-Semitic messages, following controversy over how closely partisan turnout could be monitored by city election workers to oversee vote counting.

“You will be hung in a court of law. You will not survive this treason,” said a female caller, Bluestein recently shared with CNN in a voicemail message. Another person on Facebook warned that “everyone is going to have a gun at your house.”

He did a security extension outside his home for more than a week during the height of the counting of votes. He said that his 3-year-old daughter was taking on extra stress and started having nightmares.

“You never expect to be dealing with the kind of things you deal with in 2020,” Bluestein, 32, said. Now my biggest concern is that it is harming our institutions and our democratic system.

“The easiest thing anyone can do to restore confidence in our elections,” he said, “is to stop lying about the election being stolen because it’s not true.”

Bluestein, who has worked on elections in Philadelphia since January 2012, remains at his job, but isn’t sure what will happen next after Schmidt’s term ends. Schmidt, the only Republican on the City Commission, has already announced that he will not run for re-election in 2023. Bluestein is also a Republican.

Back in Madison, Witzel-Bahl said she decided to stay in her appointed position for another five years because it would give her the opportunity to continue a professional passion: reducing inequalities in voting across the city.

Just last week, Witzel-Bahl helped train a new crop of Wisconsin municipal election clerks. “I kept telling them they had to focus on why they were doing this thing,” she said.

“What it comes down to is making voting accessible to people who are eligible to vote. That’s why we keep showing up day after day.”

CNN’s Arlett Sainz and Jasmine Wright contributed to this report.

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