Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election inspired threats and harassment against election officials—most of whom are women. As we head into the midterms, here’s how we can support these essential workers.
“You lied. You a traitor. Perhaps 75 cuts and 20 bullets will soon arrive.”
“You and your family will be killed very slowly.”
“If you send me any more emails about this election, I’m to slit your throat.”
These are just three examples among thousands of hostile or threatening messages received by election officials following the 2020 presidential election.
An eye-opening survey commissioned by NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice in mid-2021 found that “one in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.” The vast majority—more than 80 percent—of these officials are women.
Here women are, rolling up their sleeves. Stepping up to the plate and doing the stressful, exhausting and poorly paid work that quite literally gives us a democracy—their job to ensure that elections are held in a professional manner and that every valid vote is counted—now having to brave threats to their lives and their children and pinch pennies in order to afford a home security system. Yet in the many conversations around election reform, women, especially women of color, aren’t included. The ones most impacted by the problems are also the ones absent from the decision-making table.
Ms. sat down with some women who should be at that table—Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, and two officials who served in the 2020 election: Natalie Adona from Nevada County, Calif., and Tina Barton from Rochester Hills, Mich.—to hear about their experiences as women on the front lines protecting our democracy.
This conversation has been edited for publication.
Ms.: Last year your team at the Brennan Center released a report titled “Election Officials Under Attack.” What kinds of violent threats did you find that election officials have faced since the 2020 election?
Gowri Ramachandran: For the report we interviewed dozens of local and state election officials in one-on-one interviews about what they have experienced and it was heartbreaking. I mean, I had tissues out in some of these interviews, so did the election officials. People experienced racist language, misogynous language that I can’t even repeat in this interview and threats towards their children and their elderly family members.
When you are in public service you’re sometimes going to get disgruntled voters, confused voters. But they all, really universally, reported to us that this was an increase in this kind of behavior like nothing they had ever seen before. And the vitriol and the violent rhetoric in some of these messages and threats they received—most of them had never received anything like that. This came as a huge shock. Especially when they had all worked so hard to try to protect people’s physical health and safety while also helping them participate in an important election in 2020.
If we don’t have democracy, we don’t have freedom. Our system works because we have people who are knowledgeable, who know how elections work.
Ms.: As election officials you have been in the thick of it. What did you experience in the aftermath of the 2020 election?
Natalie Adona: My biggest memory of Nov. 3, 2020, is that it was calm and orderly and [there were] very few complaints. It was really after that election when the political rhetoric ramped up about election fraud and flat-out lies about the election.
So the short story is that I initiated a COVID protocol [for the county elections office]. It was dissatisfying to
some of our citizens who had initiated a recall of our board of supervisors, and three of them decided that they were going to push their way into my office and the door struck one of my staff members. I did not know what they were intending to do. One of them actually threatened me.
And it resulted in a bigger group of people coming the next day with these big flagpoles, and we were trapped in my office. There were about 15 people in our hall. Our doors were locked, and these proponents were banging on the doors. They had these big flagpoles that, for all I knew, could be used as weapons, and they were stationing themselves outside of our doors. They were there for like an hour, and it was incredibly unnerving.
I had to endure about a good six months of a steady stream of harassment very publicly by a very small group of people. I’m just trying to do my job. Things would happen that were part of the normal process of running an election, but all of a sudden they became a big deal because I was present.
[For a flyer opposing my candidacy to be county clerk reporter] they took a picture from Twitter, darkened my face, called me a “carpetbagger,” which I didn’t know was still an insult, but I guess it is. A lot of people took it as a very racist way of trying to turn people off from me.
Even to this day, one of the candidates [who ran against me] is still trying to prove that there’s something wrong with our office.
I had to endure about a good six months of a steady stream of harassment very publicly. … I’m just trying to do my job. Things would happen that were part of the normal process of running an election, but all of a sudden they became a big deal because I was present.
Tina Barton: For me, obviously 2020 was the most trying and challenging election of my career. I had been running elections for at least 15 years at that point. We had a situation in our city where an error was made by the team when we were submitting our results, and a file was sent two times. It was caught afterwards, within a matter of hours of submission, and we backed that out and corrected that, which is what the canvas period is for.
It was reported in the news. We reported it. We kind of felt like it had run its course. We had educated everybody on what had happened and then everything was fine. It was immediately caught and corrected.
A few days after that, a national political figure held a press conference, and they insinuated or inferred that the party had found 2,000 ballots in my city that belonged to [Donald] Trump and were given to [Joe] Biden and really misrepresented and mischaracterized what had happened there.
I was stunned because I was on that ballot as a Republican. I was the county nominee for the Republican side for the Oakland County Clerk’s Office Register of Deeds. I, too, lost my election, as did Trump in that county.
Wanting my constituents and my voters in my city to feel confident in the job we had done, I responded to that press conference with a video that was a little less than two minutes in length. I explained again what had happened and also expressed my disappointment that it was being mischaracterized and misused to promote an agenda that I didn’t agree with.
That video, I wouldn’t necessarily say it went viral, but it certainly gained attention. Within 72 hours we had about 1.2 million views. Within four days of that press conference, that’s when I got my first death threat. I only received a total of three—but that was three too many. One of those reached the threshold [according to the FBI] of being a viable threat to my life and that of my family members. So I have had the FBI elections crime coordinator for the Detroit region investigate my situation for over a year now, looking into who might have made that threat.
Within four days of that press conference, that’s when I got my first death threat. I only received a total of three—but that was three too many.
Ms.: What impact did this have on you professionally and personally?
Barton: I guess you don’t even realize how much of it you’re still carrying around mentally and emotionally until something happens that kind of brings it to the forefront.
A retired Michigan state police captain, he said to me, “You are living in a state of hypervigilance. You are responding as someone who has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].” It was extremely eye-opening for me. I thought that I had moved on from that.
I have a lot of friends who are not even willing to speak out. They can’t bring themselves to talk about [the election] publicly. A lot of those are women who are afraid to even talk about it. They don’t want to bring more threats on themselves.
Ms.: Ms. readers might be surprised to learn that more than 80 percent of election officials are women. What role do you think gender plays in the attacks on officials?
Adona: In one sense the experience of being harassed is different when you’re female, and when you
operate in a world where you feel like you have to work harder than everyone else around you to advance, to get noticed, to enjoy the benefits that other people enjoy.
Barton: A lot of the threats that are coming in to women are very sexually charged, using sexual terms to threaten us, to call us names or to intimidate us in some way.
It appears that there’s more of a trend when it’s a male election official, the threat is targeting their family, their children or their wives. So it’s very interesting and disturbing that when it’s a female election official they are threatening us personally with sexual undertones and sometimes very explicit sexual language.
Ramachandran: When you hear the anecdotal stories from election officials that we heard and you hear about misogynous language or gendered and racial tropes being played upon in these messages and in the sort of lies that are being spread about these public servants, you can see that at the very least gender and race are playing a role in the way in which these people are engaging in this behavior. They’re leveraging that and trying to use that against people, which is really disheartening.
But I will say that the good news is that people have been really coming to gether; awareness of this issue is really being raised. The Brennan Center conducted a poll in spring of this year and [found that] despite all of this, despite everything they were reporting, the vast majority of election officials who responded to our poll said they still really love their job. And they’re working on partnerships with law enforcement to make sure that [election officials] feel safe and they know that people have their back as they continue to dedicate their lives to helping the rest of us vote and participate.
Ms.: What else needs to be done to support election officials?
Ramachandran: The majority of states have what’s called an Address Confidentiality Program. Some states call it Safe at Home. And this is a program that, in most states, was originally set up to protect survivors of domestic violence. And it varies by state, but it allows domestic violence survivors to mask their home address and sometimes other personal information in public records. So one thing the Brennan Center is advocating for is that those programs should be expanded to cover election workers and election officials who have been experiencing harassment and threats.
Adona: On the other side of those preventative measures are punishments. There have got to be some consequences, and it doesn’t seem like there are any consequences for some of the things that happen. If there are none, then the bad behavior continues. I think that the [Department of Justice] got thousands of phone calls on their hotline from election officials, and they were able to act on 11 percent of them. Well, they found some of those things actionable, and that’s good. Immediately, my mind went to the other 89 percent of people who the FBI could not help but [who] still felt the need to call.
Barton: I think another solution is [for] people that hold elected office and have influence over their constituents and influence in their communities to speak out. [They should] denounce threats against election officials and remind people that that election worker might be your grandmother. That might be your cousin. That may be your child that’s there working, your spouse. These are your neighbors. These are people you sit with in your church pews, people you rub elbows with at the grocery store. They’re fellow soccer moms. These are the people that are your election workers.
Ms.: And these are people who are doing a vital job for our democracy.
Adona: If we don’t have democracy, we don’t have freedom. Our system works because we have people who are knowledgeable, who know how elections work.
My staff works really hard to try to deliver elections to people, and for the great majority of voters that we interact with, they’re all very thankful for what we do. I still think it’s the best job in the world, and we all do it because we care very much about people’s right to vote here in this county. I hope one day that the pendulum will swing the other way and people will start to trust us again.
It’s going to take a lot of work, but yeah, we’re all willing to do it.
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This article originally appeared in Ms.’s Fall 2022 issue. Join the Ms. community today and get the issue delivered straight to your mailbox.