After Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential race, he and his allies flooded the zone with vicious lies about a stolen election. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, they blamed thousands of low-level election workers in the supposed plot to deliver Joe Biden an unearned victory.
Poll workers and others who do the largely thankless work of administering elections subsequently faced threats and harassment, and many chose to leave the field, ceding ground to well-organized right-wing efforts to train thousands of volunteer observers and paid election workers.
Taken together, election officials around the country are now bracing for a potential problem that would have seemed outlandish just a few years ago: so-called “insider threats” to the midterm voting process. Some election experts fear that individuals seeking to produce evidence of widespread voter fraud — even when it doesn’t exist — could end up in sensitive election roles, allowing them to stir chaos with claims of fraud or wrongdoing.
Officials in several states, including Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada, have reported unusually aggressive poll watcher activity so far in primary elections this year, Reuters reported. Poll watchers have made comments about “fraudulent elections,” attempted to take photographs of voting equipment and looked at private voter data, according to the report.
As early general election voting gets underway around the country, some administrators are planning for further disruptions.
“We are expecting that election deniers will try to interfere with this or future elections to create a veneer of chaos that would give canvassers an excuse — albeit a false one — to refuse to certify the election,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), who is herself running against election denier Kristina Karamo this year, told HuffPost in a statement.
Benson said that while courts would ultimately step in in such an instance, “it will enable election deniers to claim the unwillingness to certify demonstrates the illegitimacy of the election and thereby undermine the ability of the elected to govern.”
“We are expecting that election deniers will try to interfere with this or future elections to create a veneer of chaos.”
Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official in Utah and Colorado and co-founder of The Elections Group, said she’s worked with elections officials across the country who are feeling a sense of dread about how the next few weeks may unfold.
“There’s been growing concern about reports of a well-organized, well-funded campaign to recruit individuals sympathetic to claims of election fraud and train them to be precinct committeemen, election judges, poll workers, poll watchers and unofficial observers,” Morrell said.
“The concern is, whether it’s one polling location or many, it’s just going to create chaos. If they’re told that everything they see is a problem, even if it’s a normal part of election operations or an innocent mistake, there’s a potential to create a feeling of chaos, or problems where there aren’t any ... which would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.”
‘A Tyrannical Government’
Since 2020, more than half of Pennsylvania counties have lost one of their top elections officials, part of a wave of resignations and retirements representing more than 1,000 years of experience and institutional memory, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday. The paper attributed the loss to low pay and the expanded workload of increased mail-in voting, but also the threats and harassment from Pennsylvanians who distrusted the 2020 election results.
Between resignations and scheduled retirements, Kentucky is set to lose 23 county clerks this year, Secretary of State Michael Adams said this week, compared to just two who stepped aside in 2020. In Gillespie County, Texas, a county elections administrator and her two deputies resigned all at once in August, leaving the county office unstaffed, after years of combating local election conspiracy theories, Votebeat reported.
Some counties’ staffing choices are outright alarming: In May, a right-wing activist who was present on restricted Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021, was hired as an elections trainer and poll worker recruiter by the clerk’s office in Macomb County, Michigan, which is the state’s third most populous and includes part of the Detroit area.
The new trainer, Genevieve Peters, hasn’t agreed to media outlets’ interview requests, but she told Talking Points Memo in February last year that she believed the 2020 election was “stolen” and “fraudulent,” and estimated she was one of roughly 300 people with a VIP pass to Trump’s speech the morning of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Peters, who acknowledged organizing a bus trip for the event, said she obtained the VIP pass through “an organization that I am, you know, connected with somehow,” but declined to specify further.
“We now have a tyrannical government, and I will not stand for a tyrannical government,” Peters said at the time while condemning the violence on Jan. 6, 2021. She added separately: “We’re sick and tired of not being able to trust our elected officials or our elections. And trust me, this is far from over.”
Macomb County Clerk Anthony Forlini (R) told HuffPost that Peters went through a “rigorous interview and selection process” and said he was happy with her “professionalism and skill level.” He added: “We have a diversity of employees from many backgrounds all of which I embrace.”
While Peters didn’t return HuffPost’s interview request, there’s no indication her views of the 2020 election have changed.
Running Elections, And Threatening Them
There is already ample evidence that elected, appointed and seasonal election workers with conspiracies on the brain can wreak havoc — which sometimes amounts to criminal interference.
Tina Peters, the Republican clerk in Mesa County, Colorado, currently faces multiple felony charges including identity theft for her alleged attempt to subvert her office’s security protocols and sneak an outsider into a sensitive software update session for voting machines.
As digital images of Mesa County’s election machines circulated at MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s “Cyber Symposium” last year, Peters announced that state investigators had raided her office. A year later, FBI agents surrounded Lindell’s car at a Hardee’s drive-thru, presenting a search warrant for his cell phone as part of a broader investigation into the situation in Colorado.
Even though she’s still technically Mesa County’s clerk, Peters doesn’t run the county’s elections: Judges have sided with Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s requests to keep Peters away from election administration. And in a similar move Wednesday, Griswold appointed a supervisor to oversee elections in Elbert County, where the clerk, Dallas Schroeder (R), is under investigation for allegedly giving “unauthorized individuals” copies of the county’s voting machine hard drives.
In Coffee County, Georgia, a team working with then-Trump legal adviser Sidney Powell accessed voting machines in the elections office the day following the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Among those in the room were Cathy Latham, the former county Republican Party chair, and Scott Hall, a bail bondsman who served as a Fulton County Republican poll watcher. In May, the county’s former election supervisor, Misty Hampton, told The Washington Post that she’d opened her offices to the team, saying she’d hoped they could prove “that this election was not done true and correct.”
Over the summer, commissioners in Otero County, New Mexico — including a convicted Jan. 6 defendant, “Cowboys for Trump” founder Couy Griffin — initially refused to certify election results, citing vague concerns about voting machines, until the state’s Supreme Court forced their hand.
Griffin, who voted against certification even after the court’s order, said his vote was “based on my gut feeling” rather than “facts” or “evidence.”
Last month, a state judge barred Griffin from holding office “effective immediately,” saying he had violated a section of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits people who’ve taken an oath of office from serving if they engage “in insurrection or rebellion.”
And in Michigan, a group including a right-wing sheriff and the Republican nominee for attorney general got their hands on several machines used in the 2020 election from multiple localities across the state. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) referred to the effort as a potential “conspiracy,” and her office successfully petitioned for a special prosecutor to investigate.
Morrell, from The Elections Group, said that while elections officials in years past have generally trusted that election workers would come to appreciate and follow the rules that protect against interference, these days, they’re worried about breaking through at all.
“Election officials are saying, ‘no matter what we do, it doesn’t seem to matter what info we give them, how much we answer these records requests or hold public meetings, it just doesn’t seem to have an impact,’” she said.
All of her clients, Morrell added, have voiced some version of a common sentiment: “We’re overwhelmed by [public records requests], we’ve lost good people, we’re burnt out, worried, don’t know what will happen, and are being challenged publicly in new ways.”
One recent criminal case shows just how challenging this coming election could be. Republican poll watcher James Holkeboer now faces two felony charges after he allegedly put a thumb drive into an electronic poll book computer in Kent County, Michigan, after polls closed on the state’s August primary election day.
Kent County District Court Magistrate Matthew Mapes entered a not-guilty plea for Holkeboer at his arraignment Monday, though according to a detective’s probable cause affidavit, Holkeboer had admitted to inserting a USB drive into an electronic poll book in an attempt to obtain information for unauthorized use, MLive reported. Holkeboer did not return multiple requests for comment.
‘Counting The Ballots’
With openings across the country for seasonal poll workers and more senior election positions, Republican Party officials have been aggressive about holding poll watcher trainings, and GOP legislators across the country have worked to give partisan election observers and challengers more access to the election process.
Given that more than half of Republican candidates, as well as 61% of GOP voters, falsely deny or question the results of the last election, there’s fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to insert themselves into the mechanics of the voting process.
The day before Michigan’s August primary, for example, the Wayne County GOP chairwoman encouraged poll workers and observers to “secretly” bring cell phones and pens and paper into polling places, CNN reported. Recordings obtained by the watchdog group Documented show the national Republican Party working with groups who deny the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency to train poll workers.
At the state level, poll watchers now have expanded legal authority in Texas, where the large 2021 election bill S.B. 1 allows them “free movement” within polling places and makes it a class A misdemeanor for an election official to reject a poll worker. The law also states that, except for penal code violations, poll watchers can’t be removed from polling places unless an election judge or clerk personally observes them breaking a rule. It’s also now an offense for anyone to take “any action to obstruct the view of a watcher” that might make their observation ineffective.
In Iowa, S.F. 413 states that any election official who obstructs or interferes with election observers shall be guilty of third-degree election misconduct.
And in North Carolina, a 10-member body appointed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature rejected new rules for partisan poll watchers that would have prohibited the partisans from, among other things, standing close enough to voting booths or ballot tabulators to view marked ballots. The Associated Press later noted one incident in the state, during the May primary, where a poll watcher had “wedged herself between a voter and the machine where the voter was trying to cast his ballot,” requiring an angry intervention over speakerphone from the county’s election director.
Appearing on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s show recently, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel emphasized that a federal consent decree that limited the RNC’s poll-watching program for decades has now ended. The arrangement, which a judge let expire in 2018, was put in place in 1982 in response to allegations that GOP “ballot security” work had targeted Black and Latino voters.
McDaniel said the party had already trained 30,000 poll watchers with more on the way. Then, she stressed that the GOP had corralled the same number of poll workers — which was “maybe more important,” she said, before listing strongholds for Black Democrats.
“These are people who will actually be working the polls in Fulton County, in Wayne County, in Milwaukee, in Philly. These are going to be the people that we have submitted that are going to actually be counting the ballots.”
Later, Bannon referred to 2022 as the most important midterm election since 1862.
“We have the unique opportunity to put a crushing death blow at the ballot box on the Democratic Party as a national political institution,” he said. “We must win.”