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Election officials are bracing for conspiracy-fueled threats — while still hoping for the best

Harassment and concerning incidents at drop boxes in swing states fueled by 2020 conspiracies, as well as the prospect of counting delays, have many workers on high alert.
Poll workers handle ballots in the presence of observers from both Democrat and Republican parties at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center in Phoenix on Oct. 25, 2022.
Poll workers handle ballots in the presence of observers from the Democratic and the Republican parties at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center in Phoenix on Oct. 25.Olivier Touron / AFP via Getty Images file

Election officials in some of the most closely watched jurisdictions across the country say they are bracing for a new wave of conspiracy-theory-fueled threats — even as they remain confident in their ability to do their jobs under heightened scrutiny. 

Most of a dozen local election officials in the swing states of Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, expressed concern in interviews that the election denialism and conspiracy theories they have spent the last two years combating have already taken on new life, fueling isolated yet alarming incidents at drop box locations in Arizona and Pennsylvania, for example.

The officials also warned that the prospect of delayed results in their states because of ballot counting rules and the closeness of contests, among other possible factors, could invite a fresh round of conspiracy theories or suggestions of wrongdoing that lead to a new round of harassment. Still, they expressed no doubts about their ability to conduct safe and accurate counts.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that the eyes of the world are on us,” said Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, whose county was at the heart of pro-Trump election denialism in Arizona.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, local election officials became frequent targets of supporters of former President Donald Trump who supported his false claims of election fraud. 

Misleading or outright false conspiracy theories about voting machines, the secure drop boxes used to collect mail ballots and the election officials themselves spread like wildfire online, routinely amplified by the former president and his close allies nationally and at the state level. The claims have persisted even though there has been no evidence of widespread electoral malfeasance, and scores of officials across the country left their jobs amid the barrage of accusations and personal attacks. Election officials say they are still contending with the fallout. 

“Unfortunately, we’re still seeing a very similar climate, with a lot of suspicion and a lot of anger,” Lisa Schaefer, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said in an interview.

Warning signs that have some officials on edge

NBC News interviewed election workers in six of the seven closest swing states by presidential margin in 2020, from which nearly 60% of complaints to the Justice Department’s Threats to Election Workers Task Force that met the criteria for further investigation have originated during the year it has been up and running.

Across those battlegrounds, the officials said they were on high alert over warning signs they believe signal potentially disruptive forces in the 2022 election. They include intimidating tactics targeting themselves and voters, a growing pile of lawsuits challenging certain voting rules, candidates who refuse to say they’ll accept the results of their elections, and the specter of delays in tallying or recounting tight races, giving more time and air for conspiracy theories to catch fire and allowing the cycle to intensify.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, the top elections official in Wisconsin’s second-most-populous county, said he has been on the receiving end of an increasing number of phone calls and emails in recent weeks from people spouting theories about which votes can and cannot be counted.

He said he referred one email — from a person who was requesting access to “really secure data” — to the Justice Department task force and has met with local law enforcement officials throughout his county to try to review potential Election Day scenarios with them. The building his office is in recently installed plexiglass barriers, panic buttons and CCTV cameras in every room.

“I hope this is all just overreaction,” McDonell said. “But you could have poll observers who are being extremely disruptive. That’s probably what I’m most concerned about … people who could show up in the polling places with bogus lists trying to challenge voters.”

Federal law enforcement has sounded the alarm. Last week, a joint assessment authored by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and U.S. Capitol Police said domestic extremists “pose a heightened threat to the 2022 midterm elections” and may find elections workers and officials as “attractive” targets. As of June, federal investigators had already reviewed more than 1,000 incidents referred to the federal task force in charge of threats to election workers in the year it has been operational. 

More recently, the Justice Department said an Iowa man was arrested on charges that he left menacing voicemails for a local election official in Arizona and an official associated with the state attorney general’s office that referred to false claims of fraud and threatened hanging. In addition, armed people have been seen monitoring drop boxes in Arizona. A judge ordered them Wednesday to stay at least 250 feet away from the locations.

Other officials across the battlegrounds said they’ve seen an explosion of partisan poll watchers — people who want to oversee the polls and potentially challenge individual votes. The Republican National Committee, state parties and allies have touted efforts to recruit and train poll monitors ahead of the election vote.

Sheryl Guy, the clerk in Antrim County, Michigan — a deep-red county that was at the center of unfounded pro-Trump conspiracy theories after the 2020 vote — estimated the number of poll watchers has increased in her locale by 90%, although she said she expected groups to leave without causing much trouble, because poll-watching gets “boring after a while.”

But there are worries, some of them in Georgia, where people and activist groups have already organized challenges over the eligibility of tens of thousands of voters. Bartow County Election Supervisor Joseph Kirk, the top election official in a red county in the northwest corner of the state, said he’d have local law enforcement “on standby” on Election Day to deal with any disruptive poll watchers. 

Election officials also said the courts could inject chaos into the process if results are contested for weeks after the vote. Such potential delays would also increase pressure on officials and open them up as targets for harassment and threats. 

As The Associated Press reported, more than 100 lawsuits, largely filed by Republicans, have been submitted this year ahead of Election Day. The suits target mail-in voting rules to voting registration and access for partisan poll watchers.

“That’s probably the biggest concern,” said Leslie Osche, the Republican chair of the Butler County Board of Commissioners in Pennsylvania. “What happens post-election? How many legal challenges are going to be launched?”

Another possible wrinkle? Candidates’ refusing to accept the results of the election, as Trump declined to do after 2020.

“Well, I certainly hope that we don’t see a replay of that, because it would be very damaging to our democracy, particularly here in Arizona,” said Gates, who expressed concern that some Republican candidates have refused to commit to accept the results of their elections.

One issue that could pop up in some swing states is the sheer amount of time legally mandated recounts would take in very tight races — possibly leaving voters hanging for nearly a month or more to find out who won.

“When measures kick in dragging out or delaying significantly the process of who’s actually won the election, extreme ideas suddenly become [part of] the process,” said election expert Rick Pildes, a New York University School of Law professor.

“In the climate we’re in,” he added, “that’s a dangerous situation.”

‘A dangerous, downward cycle’

While disruptive incidents aren’t yet widespread, many election officials and experts worry that they’re happening at all — and that they seem to be firmly rooted in the conspiracy theories that arose after the 2020 election.

“There is a concern of security of the election workers, not necessarily because of direct threats or things like that, but just coming out of 2020 and everything that happened there, our counties are going to be very careful and want to make sure that those election workers are safe on Election Day,” said Steve Currie, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties.

In Maricopa County, Gates said he is working with local law enforcement to provide additional security for election workers, noting that “we’ve seen some of the most vile emails and social media posts just here recently.”

Election officials have also been grappling with a mass exodus of officials after the 2020 vote.

The top election officials in 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties have resigned, retired or decided to not seek re-election since Election Day 2020, the secretary of state’s office said. Droves of election workers throughout Georgia quit after the 2020 election. And in Pennsylvania, nearly 50 top election officials have left their posts in the past two years.

Some interviewed by NBC News contended that the field has proven resilient, noting that other officials in these elections offices have stepped up as a result of the departures and that, in some cases, 2020 has made it easier to recruit.

“I’ve seen a lot of people saying, ‘They won’t drive me away; I’m in this to protect democracy,’ and so forth,” said Mark Evans, the communications director for Pima County, Arizona. “And so it’s like it’s been a catalyst.”

But Schaefer, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said that even in some of the rosier scenarios, “there’s definitely a loss of institutional knowledge,” adding that she remains confident in local administrators’ ability to oversee the count. “So certainly, it’s taken a little bit to get [new] folks up to speed.”

Even so, it’s still one bright spot in what otherwise amounts to a “very dangerous cycle,” said Lawrence Norden, the senior director of the elections and government program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 

“Election workers and election officials leave or stop coming in, more errors can occur as a result, which in turn can fuel disinformation,” he said.

When those work in concert with all the other factors, including “more partisan election observers looking to fuel further conspiracy theories,” it “then leads to decreased confidence in the elections process, and that in turn leads to more threats,” Norden said.

“It’s a dangerous, downward cycle,” he said.