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Election workers are already being threatened. They're worried about 2024

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Donald Trump keeps 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, you know?

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. Some of it was just kind of weird and ridiculous.

MURPHY: I had one woman - she said, you're a wicked woman. You're doing awful things in there with the ballots.

ARNOLD: 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 PERSON #1: 911. What's your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi. Yes, I work with the county clerk's office. I am currently trying to pick up ballots. I have had somebody following me since I left...

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 box. 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. He doesn't want to use his name but remembers at one drop box...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: 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 PERSON #2: 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. Conspiracy theorists tour the country, speaking at events claiming that elections are rigged. 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.

NANCY BOREN: I actually bring a weapon with me every day to work.

ARNOLD: That's Nancy Boren, the director of elections in Columbus, Ga. We spoke to other election workers in Georgia and Virginia who didn't want to use their names.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We have a lot of just general [expletive] views. You're trying to rig the election. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

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

ARNOLD: In this past midterm election, an official in Arizona tells NPR someone threatened to murder him and his children. The FBI arrested the person. Here's another official in a Southern state who didn't want to use her name for fear of being further targeted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The threat was specifically that the following week that I would not be alive. My home address was made public online. And then my dog was poisoned.

ARNOLD: The dog barely survived. 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. They're 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 and 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.

ARNOLD: A recent survey from the nonprofit Brennan Center found that nearly 1 in 3 election workers say that they've had to deal with harassment, abuse or threats. And almost half worry about the safety of their colleagues in future elections.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I am very nervous about next year, about the presidential year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #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 9 months pregnant this past election.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #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. They say election denier people knocked on the neighbor's doors, asking questions about them. Like other election workers that NPR talked to, the couple's now set up a motion-sensitive floodlight and a security camera.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our garbage cans were gone through. There was garbage taken out and mail strewn across our yard.

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, yeah, just like that.

ARNOLD: Again, it was this mix of ridiculousness along with things that were more serious. Violent-sounding social media posts were scary. And the couple doesn't think the community here realizes what they've been going through at the elections office.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: It felt like we were under attack - constant phone calls and people coming in and yelling at us. And we were reaching out to the sheriff's office. So they were walking us to and from the building. And any time we stepped out of the door, people were filming us. And at one point, as the sheriff was leading us outside, 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. He says it was hard to watch and hear about local people doing all this to county election workers.

SWEET: You know, it's a form of really a bit 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. Rod Taylor runs a local surveying supply business. He was arrested for a curfew violation after the riot on January 6 in D.C.

ROD TAYLOR: I heeded an admonition from Gen. Michael Flynn to go home and make a difference there. And so we started a citizens group here in Coos County called Citizens Restoring Liberty. And we continue to meet weekly.

ARNOLD: The group is worried about supposed voter fraud and also government regulation of guns, masks and public schools. Its members have run as candidates for local government and school boards. Taylor himself ran for county commissioner. Here he is speaking ahead of last year's election on a local conservative talk radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAYLOR: You know what? I'm proud to have been there on January 6.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Right. Right.

TAYLOR: Yeah. It was a peaceable gathering on the 6. And, you know, people were happy, man.

ARNOLD: January 6 was quite violent. On the talk show, Taylor said he went into the building very briefly, though he says he did not participate in the violence. County officials say it was members of that Citizen's Restoring Liberty group who were camped in the hallways of the elections office. But despite their concerns about voter fraud, when the votes were counted, Rod Taylor narrowly won - a result he does not dispute. And he is now a Coos County commissioner.

TAYLOR: There's no window in here. Unfortunately, I wish I had a little bit of outside light, but...

ARNOLD: Taylor is showing me around his new county office. He's wearing a gun on his belt. He's got a scripture reading of the day on his desk, an American flag, a Trump won sign. We wanted to ask Taylor, does he think it's OK that local election workers here in his own county feel threatened just doing their jobs?

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. So unfortunately, we did have some people who, I think, engaged election staff in unproductive ways that I would not have advocated for and I still don't condone.

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 take it very seriously. And they like their job. And 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: For their part, law enforcement officials say it can be difficult to intervene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 911. What's your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: This is Coos County with a transfer. This is the...

ARNOLD: The election worker who says he was chased while collecting ballots says he was told by police that since no officers saw this person driving erratically, there was nothing they could do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They have tried to run me off the road.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm a little scared.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

ARNOLD: The county sheriff, Gabe Fabrizio, says there were also complaints from voters who felt harassed or threatened at drop boxes. But he says nothing rose to the level that law enforcement decided that they could do much about.

GABE FABRIZIO: We want to make sure that everybody's First Amendment rights, their freedom of speech, is protected. So threats we take definitely seriously, and we'll go investigate them. And - but at the same time, you got to balance that off of people can say whatever they want.

ARNOLD: Around the country, people are trying to find solutions. Some states are passing laws to try to help. Right now Donald Trump, the election denialist in chief, is the GOP frontrunner 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 THIRD COAST PERCUSSION'S "AGUAS DA AMAZONIA: NO. 1, MADEIRA RIVER") 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.