Facebook Twitter

A T-shirt for sale at The Trump Store reads “Trump 2024 Save America!” on Thursday, Sep. 9, 2021.

Caroline Gutman, for the Deseret News

The next ballot box battle has begun

Election workers around the country have faced intimidation since the 2020 election, leading some to resign, which could leave counties less prepared for the fall’s midterms

SHARE The next ballot box battle has begun
SHARE The next ballot box battle has begun

The turning point for Stephen Richer came five months into his first term as an Arizona county recorder when his office was accused of engaging in election fraud. 

Richer, a lifelong conservative and proud Trump voter, had run on the platform of making “Maricopa County Recorder’s Office Boring Again.” As chief election official of the second-largest voting district in the country, and one that had been embroiled in an election fraud controversy since 2020, Richer sought to lower the temperature by avoiding the media spotlight and, well, being boring.

However, just seven days after Richer took office on Jan. 4, 2021, the spotlight was again turned to the Maricopa Elections Department as the Arizona Senate moved to audit the county’s November 2020 election results. The renewed attention brought to Richer’s office a string of death threats, harassing emails and near-violent altercations — a reaction that has become all too familiar to election officials since the 2020 election. 

Election workers around the country have faced an increase in accusations and intimidation since former President Donald Trump refused to concede the 2020 election, causing some to resign, which could leave many counties less prepared for this fall’s midterms.

In a Brennan Center survey conducted earlier this year, 1 out of every 6 election officials reported having received threats because of their job, and more than three-quarters of those interviewed felt these threats had become more common in recent years. The survey, which interviewed nearly 600 election workers from across the country and political spectrum, also found that nearly one-third of election workers reported to know someone who had left that position as a result of threats or intimidation following the 2020 election. 

The data shows that threats aimed at public-facing election officials, such as Richer and secretaries of state, have not been limited to them. For many election workers, intimidation has become a common feature of the job.

After months of complying with the state’s audit, information technology workers in Maricopa’s election department became the target of new threats. On May 12, 2021, a Twitter account speaking on behalf of the company auditing Maricopa’s election results announced it had found evidence that Maricopa County election workers had deleted databases in anticipation of the audit. 

Not only were the claims false (they were promptly put to rest by the audit’s own investigation), but they also put regular election workers in harm’s way, Richer said in an interview with the Deseret News. The IT employees accused of the supposed data deletion were threatened with being hanged for treason soon after the tweet was posted, according to Richer.  

Richer knew as soon as he read the tweet his months of determined silence were over.

“I felt disbelief, disgust, that it would go that far as to start now accusing individual employees, who are simply going about their day, of unlawful activity,” Richer said.

Recognizing that despite his best efforts the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office was not about to achieve its goal of avoiding political controversy, Richer began to speak out for the first time since entering office, publishing a 38-page letter explaining his conservative bona fides, debunking claims of election fraud, and detailing flaws with the state Senate-ordered audit of the 2020 presidential election. 

“There are many things I would do for the Republican candidate for President, but I won’t lie about the election,” Richer wrote. 

The state Senate’s audit results were eventually released in September 2021, confirming Trump’s loss and offering no substantial evidence of fraud that couldn’t be debunked by the Maricopa County Election Department. However, despite this case being closed, the story of Maricopa County continues to be repeated across the country, resulting in the discouragement, and sometimes resignation, of election officials leading up to the fall midterms.

In July, the top two election officials of Arizona’s Yavapai County, located just north of Maricopa County, both resigned because of the “nastiness” they had received since 2020, as reported by the AP. The former Yavapai County recorder, Leslie Hoffman, had held her position for more than a decade before her job became unworkable. 

“I’m a Republican recorder living in a Republican county where the candidate that they wanted to win won by 2-to-1 in this county and still getting grief, and so is my staff,” Hoffman said to the AP.

Just last month, the entire elections office of Gillespie County in Texas, consisting of an elections administrator and two staff members, resigned, citing death threats, stalking and “dangerous misinformation” as their reason for leaving, according to the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post. This left the county without any of the officials needed to operate the election come fall.

“I don’t know how we’re going to hold an election when everybody in the election department has resigned,” said Gillespie County Judge Mark Stroeher. The Texas Secretary of State will send in training specialists to help prepare the remaining county employees for their new roles as impromptu election officials, according to reporting done by the New York Times.

Sherrie Swensen, first elected as Salt Lake County Clerk more than three decades ago, has been witness to this dramatic change in the treatment of local election officials.

“In all the years I’ve worked as county clerk I’ve never seen anything like what has happened since the last presidential election,” Swensen said. “It has been very discouraging and disheartening not only to myself but to all the dedicated poll workers and election staff who work extremely hard to make sure all of the ballots are counted accurately and efficiently.”

Swensen was dismayed but not surprised upon hearing recent comments made by Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow Guy,” about Utah elections. 

“You get to Utah where there’s no one-day election, it’s all mail in vote, it’s pure crime. Nobody votes in Utah. It’s all just made up,” Lindell, a loud proponent of election fraud theories, recently said on his video channel, making waves on Twitter.

“It’s absolutely patently false,” Swensen said in response, using Lindell’s phrase, “It’s just made up,” to describe his comments. “They have no basis for their claims. It’s just made up. And it’s such a disservice to our country,” she said.

Regardless of their legitimacy, such claims have been foundational to the campaigns of candidates running to be chief election officials in key states, like Mark Finchem in Arizona and Jim Marchant in Nevada. Both candidates are members of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, an organization committed to “overhaul the fraudulent election system,” as Marchant, the coalition’s president, states on his website. Both Marchant and Finchem say the 2020 election should not have been certified and both won their respective Republican primaries this summer.

Claims of election fraud have not been limited to Republican candidates. Stacey Abrams, now in the midst of her second Georgia gubernatorial bid, still refuses to concede her 2018 loss to Gov. Brian Kemp, maintaining that his win was the outcome of a “rigged” system. These claims were amplified in Georgia following the passage of several election laws last year that President Joe Biden referred to as “Jim Crow in the 21st century,” despite the record-breaking turnout of subsequent elections.

Georgia was only one of many states to make election integrity a priority in the legislative sessions since the 2020 election. Arizona enacted nearly 30 election-related laws in 2021 and 2022, more than any other state. These laws include requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship in federal elections, removing voters from the mail-in ballot list if they fail to vote for multiple cycles, and raising the recount threshold, which will make an automatic recount more likely after this November’s election. 

But these laws will mostly go unnoticed by voters, Richer said. What voters can count on, he said, is that the system will work as accurately and effectively as ever. 

“We’ve taken a system that was fundamentally working and just enhanced it such that we can really hone in on your ballot and everywhere it goes,” Richer said. “You can track your ballot all the way through the process and hopefully feel secure about your vote.”

The Maricopa Elections Department website allows voters to receive text or email updates about their ballot’s status as it goes from one step of the tabulation process to the next. In addition to enhancing its digital services, Maricopa’s elections department has returned to using thicker paper, not available during the pandemic, to avoid marker bleed-through and has increased the availability of in-person voting locations to the greatest number in Maricopa’s history.

Maricopa’s elections department has also made an effort to reach out to the community through social and news media to help voters better understand the election process, Richer said. These efforts include a YouTube video series explaining how to vote and how votes are counted, and a “BeBallotReady” campaign encouraging voters to be more informed. 

This desire to communicate transparency and create confidence in the election system is one shared by election workers everywhere, Richer said. 

“If you have questions, ask us, please let us show you,” Richer said. “We’re here to answer questions.”