His staff endured racist taunts. His voicemail overflowed with threats and wild conspiracy theories. And then one day, a caller warned that the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville “was a practice run for what was coming to our polling places.”
The abuse and threats hurled at Fulton County, Georgia, Elections Director Richard Barron and his staff in Atlanta between last year’s general election and the state’s high-stakes Senate runoffs on January 5 marked a new low in his 21-year career working on elections.
“I used to have a sense of pride about this work,” Barron told CNN. “But I don’t think that I do anymore.”
Around the country, election supervisors and the rank-and-file workers who helped carry out the nuts and bolts of American democracy still are reeling from the barrage of threats and the flood of falsehoods they had to navigate as they helped a record number of people cast ballots in a pandemic.
The baseless claims of election fraud promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies may have reached their deadly apogee on January 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of the presidential contest. But election officials said they still are coping with the fallout weeks later – as they face voters still skeptical of the results and new skirmishes with state lawmakers over how to run elections moving forward.
In Arizona – where election officials in Phoenix saw nightly protests as they tallied votes last November – members of the Republican-controlled Senate weighed contempt charges for members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, on grounds that they had refused to comply with demands to hand over images of every mail-in ballot for review.
Some senators threatened board members with arrest.
In the end, the Senate voted against holding the Maricopa officials in contempt, with one GOP lawmaker, Sen. Paul Boyer, breaking with his caucus to block the effort.
President Joe Biden’s win in populous Maricopa cemented his victory in Arizona, making him the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 to carry the state.
“Some of our voters are upset with us,” Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, one of four Republicans on the five-member board, told CNN. “They wanted to see us come out with a different decision when we certified the votes. But to me, there was no choice to make. I mean, the votes were cast. It was a fair election.”
‘Tsunami’ of harassment
Maricopa County officials received death threats after certifying the results, Gates said.
Jennifer Morrell, a former local election supervisor who consults with election officials as a partner with The Elections Group, said she’s heard plenty from “discouraged” officials in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
“They took on this Herculean task – running an election in a pandemic. They did it well. There were no major meltdowns, and then they faced this avalanche, this tsunami, of criticism and harassment,” she said.
“These are people. They are mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents. They are your friends and neighbors, and people are making their lives miserable.”
There’s no central repository of the threats local officials faced, and the FBI declined to say how many of these kinds of cases it has investigated, citing the department’s standard practice of not commenting on ongoing matters.
But the concerns about violence have grown so great that the National Association of Secretaries of State recently adopted a bipartisan resolution condemning threats against election workers as the “antithesis of what our nation stands for.”
In Philadelphia, the threats last November led to police details for local officials, Al Schmidt, the city’s lone Republican commissioner, told CNN. The threatening messages stopped only a few weeks ago, but Schmidt said officials still are working to combat misinformation more than three months after Election Day.
“Finding the best way to convince people of the truth has been, I think, a lot more challenging than I would have thought,” said Schmidt. “Because it’s not really based in fact; it’s based in a belief. And it’s hard to dissuade someone of that belief, no matter how many facts you have.”
Race to roll back voting access
In key battlegrounds, state lawmakers now are racing to roll back provisions that expanded access to voting, citing constituent concerns about election integrity. In all, lawmakers in 33 states have proposed more than 165 bills that would restrict voting, according to an updated analysis of election bills by the Brennan Center for Justice.
That’s more than four times as many bills of this kind that had been introduced at this point last year.
In Georgia, where Democrats made historic gains in the presidential and Senate races, one GOP-sponsored measure would undo a 2005 law that allowed no-excuse absentee voting. The voters who would still qualify to vote absentee by mail, such as people 75 and older and those with disabilities, would have to include copies of their photo IDs both when they request absentee ballots and when they return them, under one proposal.
Another measure would ban ballot drop boxes – which became a flashpoint for Republicans who argue they facilitated voter fraud.
There’s been no proof of widespread fraud in the election. Barron said couriers who traveled around the city on January 5 to collect absentee ballots from drop boxes were harassed and followed as they made their rounds. At one point, protesters temporarily blocked the facilities’ driveways to keep the couriers from delivering the ballots, he said.
“That’s blatant voter suppression,” he said. “That’s what’s really getting to me. The bills in the Legislature seem to be an extension of the craziness we saw.”
Georgia Republican officials have defended their legislative proposals as needed to restore voter confidence in elections.
“The proposed reforms are designed to limit abuse of the system while maintaining access for all Georgians and ensuring that their legal votes are accurately and timely counted,” said Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, a Republican.
“Claims of suppression or that we’re legitimizing conspiracy theories are partisan tactics and don’t reflect the contents of the reforms we’re going to advocate,” he added.
‘No one was happy’
Barron said it was hard to stomach the threats and harassment as his team scrambled to pull off multiple elections – primaries, a general election, a runoff – under extraordinary circumstances. More than two dozen Fulton County workers contracted the coronavirus in one week, he said.
“No matter what we did, no one was happy with anything,” he said.
Barron said the ugliest threats have abated but the calls questioning the results keep trickling in.
A woman recently left a message spouting conspiracy theories advanced by the Trump-supporting MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. “She was saying, ‘I need to watch it because (Lindell) has all the answers as to what happened in Georgia,’ ” Barron recounted.
Another caller, he said, demanded information on why “adjudication files” were still missing.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Barron said, wearily.