As Michigan election officials face threats, pols push for legislation to protect them

Harassment comes amid disinformation and conspiracy theories about 2020 election

By: - November 8, 2021 2:02 pm

Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury

At a U.S. Senate hearing last week, Al Schmidt, a Republican election official from Philadelphia, called the threats made to murder him and his family, “domestic terrorism.” His story is one of many election workers across the nation facing threats and harassment for their roles in the 2020 election—threats that have also been prevalent in Michigan.  

According to a survey conducted by Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, about one in every three election officials nationwide feel unsafe because of their job while another one of every six election workers have been threatened due to their job. 

Threats toward election officials have been increasingly prevalent following the 2020 general election in which President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump. A rise in disinformation and conspiracy theories that falsely allege election fraud regarding the 2020 election have spurred the threats made to election officials. 

In Michigan, some Republican lawmakers have repeatedly pushed disinformation about the election. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), for example, has made baseless claims that “dead people voted” in Michigan during the 2020 election and called the state’s election system “too loose.” The co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, Meshawn Maddock, and her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) have been two of Michigan’s most adamant voices falsely advocating that the election was rigged.

One incident in Antrim County has been used to empower election fraud conspiracies in Michigan. Antrim County’s initial 2020 election results indicated Biden’s victory in the county but later results proved Trump had won the deep-red area. The Michigan Association of County Clerks asserted that the issue derived from human error, not the election equipment. 

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum at a press conference announcing Democrats’ voting rights bill package, Nov. 3, 2021, at the Ingham County Courthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum shared with the Advance her experiences as an election worker, as well as the experiences of various election workers across Michigan. 

Byrum specifically noted the threats made against an election worker in Northern Michigan, who she said received a voicemail from someone saying they could see the inside of her house and that it would be a shame if something happened to her dog. She said threats like these are causing more workers to leave their positions for fear of harassment. 

“We’re seeing election officials leave the business,” Byrum said. “ I don’t think we’re gonna see the real impact of that until 2024 when county clerks are on the ballot, but we’re just starting to see the impact.” 

Byrum also noted the role disinformation on the internet has played in increasing threats toward poll workers, saying “disinformation is a clear threat to our democracy.” A report by the Brennan Center and Reuters highlighted that an estimated 54% of election officials believed social media made their work more dangerous, while 78% said it made their jobs more difficult. 

For one of Michigan’s top election officials, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, threats against her skyrocketed and became so specific that she was forced to have recurrent 24-hour police protection. Last December, she had over a dozen people stand outside her house while she remained inside with her husband and son. It took authorities 45 minutes to arrive at the situation.

Benson told CNN that the threats create “an air of apprehension everywhere” everywhere she goes. She also noted that there have not been enough arrests of those making threats against election workers. 

“The lack of accountability means one thing: we have to anticipate that it will continue, and then as we close in on next year’s election and 2024, I think it will simply continue to escalate, unless there are real consequences,” Benson said.

Although few arrests have been made to hold those making threats against election workers and officials accountable, legislation introduced at both the state and national level aim to increase protections for election workers. 

In the U.S. Senate, Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) has introduced the Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act to provide protection for election workers and their families. 

State Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt), has tried to address the issue of poll worker harassment in the Michigan Legislature.

State Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) at a press conference announcing Democrats’ voting rights bill package, Nov. 3, 2021, at the Ingham County Courthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

Hope and 14 other Democrats are sponsoring House Bill 5282, which was introduced in August would prohibit individuals from harassing, intimidating or preventing poll workers from fulfilling their duties. If a person were caught, they would be charged with a misdemeanor and face either or both 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Hope spoke to the Advance about the need for this issue to be addressed at both the national and state level. She highlighted that state lawmakers may have the ability to address the issue quicker than leaders at the national level would be able to. 

“I think it’s important [at the national level] to set a baseline for what’s expected, what’s acceptable.” Hope said. “At the local level, something more concrete. Sometimes we can act a little more quickly at the state level and get things on the books sooner. It’s important to make the effort, it’s important to send the message to the elections officials and election workers: we see you, we are concerned about you, we know you do an important job.” 

Hope also addressed the difficulty of garnering bipartisan support for her bill. 

“Unfortunately, it’s seen as a partisan issue, when in reality, it’s not,” Hope said.  “Clerks and election officials of both parties have been threatened. They’re doing it out of a sense of civic duty, which I think is a rare commodity, and something that we should respect and encourage.” 

Nationally, far fewer Republicans report trusting their election officials than Democrats. According to a June poll from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., 44% of Republicans say they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in their state election administrators, compared to 76% of Democrats.

Republicans’ views of election officials shift dramatically in states where Trump won, according to the poll. In these states, seven in 10 Republicans reported trusting their state election officials and eight in 10 said they had faith in their local election officials. Meanwhile, in states where Biden won, those numbers drop to 24% for state officials and 50% for local.

Byrum did note that she is “not optimistic” any bills will cultivate bipartisan support, but stressed now is the time for lawmakers to act and establish protection for election workers.

“It is past time for our elected officials to stand up [against] such behavior,” Byrum said. “It is unacceptable to threaten and harass anyone, especially those individuals that are the frontline defenders of our democracy.”

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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.