Editor’s Note: This roundup is part of the CNN Opinion series “America’s Future Starts Now,” in which people share how they have been affected by the biggest issues facing the nation and experts offer their proposed solutions. The views expressed in these commentaries are the authors’ own. Read more opinion at CNN.
If there is one group of Americans who understands the risks facing US democracy, it’s election workers who are on the frontlines of managing American elections. Though this job has traditionally been a low-risk form of public service, since 2020 that reality has changed for many of these government officials.
Three current and retired election workers – from California, Michigan and Pennsylvania, respectively – share both the threats they have faced in the line of duty and the steps they have taken to protect our elections moving forward.
Natalie Adona: The conspiracy storm that followed the calmest Election Day
November 3, 2020, was a strangely quiet and calm Election Day in Nevada County, California, where I help run the voting process. Most voters in this purple county had already cast their ballots by mail. And those who did come to vote in-person cast their ballots in an orderly and respectful fashion.
The weeks and months that followed the 2020 presidential election, however, were anything but quiet or calm. Conspiracy theorists and those who believed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen verbally harassed, intimidated and threatened my staff and me. They accused us of being both masterminds who “rig” elections and not knowledgeable enough to know how elections “really” work. Not surprisingly, many volunteers who I relied upon to administer elections left work in tears – or quit serving altogether.
And these elections deniers made me a particular target of their frustrations. They falsely accused me of violating state campaign finance laws, of partaking in unspecified acts of corruption and of lying about my work experience. Some even subjected me to racist vitriol in a mailer that was distributed countywide. It got so bad at one point that I had to get a restraining order against one individual who threatened me.
But they did not stop there. Election deniers have since sent an unprecedented number of public records requests that many of my colleagues and I believe are intended to stymie our operations. For example, our county has received multiple requests for the same documents – many of which look to be copied and pasted from the same template. In a small office like mine, these requests divert significant amounts of my time and resources that could be otherwise spent on planning the next election.
Despite these newfound risks, I remain committed to my job and to my role in protecting democracy. And in the years and months since the 2020 election, my office has worked tirelessly with local, state and federal partners to improve communications, strengthen security protocols, mitigate threats and increase staff training opportunities.
In the lead up to the midterm elections this year, election offices everywhere need increased funding and stronger protections for workers. Those who threaten, harass and intimidate election workers should also face consequences for bad behavior. Some legislators are making strides toward these goals – and more can be done.
Stakeholders from both sides of the aisle must put country before party to keep our elections free and fair. If you think that’s impossible, just let an election official show you how it’s done.
Natalie Adona is the clerk-recorder elect, a non-partisan office, in Nevada County, California. She is a member of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Adona is also an advisory board member for the Election Official Legal Defense Network, an editorial board member for the Journal of Election Administration Research and Practice, a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Task Force and a participant in the Issue One “Faces of Democracy” campaign.
Lisa Deeley: When the worst-case scenario became a political reality
In late September 2020, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management called the who’s who of Philadelphia government to the Emergency Operations Center for a more than three-hour tabletop exercise on the 2020 presidential election. During that time, a facilitator presented a set of worst-case scenarios, and everyone worked on addressing the problems that arose.
The final scenario – called “contested election results” – involved Donald Trump winning on election night, but the race still being too close to call. In this example, Trump would then declare victory – despite the hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots that remained to be counted.
By week’s end, Biden would take the lead and demonstrations in and around Philadelphia would become violent. The exercise finished, “Even though the initial vote count is largely complete, there is no end in sight as weeks of civil unrest, legal action and intense scrutiny loom.”
During this somewhat prophetic scenario, I watched the top officials in the room express serious concern. As extreme as this scenario sounded, it also felt entirely plausible.
On election night 2020, much of it started to come true.
Many Democrats chose to vote by mail. As a result, when the in-person results came in on election night, Trump was winning Pennsylvania and several other battleground states. Early Wednesday morning, Trump prematurely declared victory. But his margin over Biden started to close as mail-in ballots were counted. Trump and his legal team then tried every avenue to stop the count but were unsuccessful each time.
What I did not fully grasp at the time was how much of a risk this would all pose to me. When I ran for city commissioner, I began every speech by explaining that the commissioners run Philadelphia’s elections. This had typically been a low-profile office that served a critical democratic function but carried a relatively low profile and security risk.
A few days after the election, I made the mistake of leaving the bubble of the convention center where the votes were still being counted to get some air. I was followed outside, verbally attacked and videotaped by a member of Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign. After the video of me was posted on the dark corners of the internet, I received a barrage of attacks, some mocking my appearance and weight – an experience all too familiar to women in politics — and some even threatening my life.
One of the threats turned out to be credible, and I had two plain-clothes Philadelphia police officers assigned to follow me wherever I went – including the bathroom. I avoided engaging in basic daily activities, such as getting my hair done, because I did not want to have to explain to my hairdresser who my escorts were.
Since that fateful November, we have taken measures to increase security and ensure the safety of our election workers. But the risk of political violence remains – and with it my firm commitment to fight for our democracy.
Election Day has always played a significant role in my life. My mother was the local committee person in our neighborhood. Since she was a single mom, wherever she went, I followed – including the polls on Election Day. Back then, our polling place was a barber shop, where I would spend hours spinning on a leather barber’s chair taking it all in.
But not every American has a mother – or barber shop – like mine. We need to invest in our teachers and schools, so they can better teach civics education and impart on young people just how precious democratic ideals truly are.
Lisa Deeley, a Democrat, is the chairwoman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, a three-member bipartisan board of elected officials in charge of elections and voter registration for the city of Philadelphia.
Tina Barton: The dangerous truth I knew in January 2019
“The stakes have never been higher in elections. We are bombarded by social media, the press and politicians with words like fraud, infiltration and manipulation, to name a few. What all of this has led to can be summed up in one word – doubt. Voters doubt that their vote counted. They doubt the integrity of election officials. They doubt that the equipment is programmed correctly. Doubt has empowered people to verbally attack election officials and send anonymous letters.”
This is the beginning of a speech that I gave in January 2019. It was clear to me then – when I served as the city clerk of Rochester Hills, Michigan – that a shift in public perception of our elections and election officials was well underway.
Much of it dates back to 2016, when a hand recount of the election results in Michigan was requested (then halted), and the Russian attempt to interfere in our politics and social media – ripe with disinformation and misinformation about the presidential election – began to play a larger role in electoral politics.
Not surprisingly, it led some to doubt our very election process. Doubt in this process, which began as a seed, had grown into an invasive weed choking the profession four years later.
The November 2020 election only reinforced my worst fears. I had just overseen the administration of the most challenging election of my career, and all eyes were on Michigan. Unfortunately, my team and I made an error in resubmitting an absentee voter file on election night – a mistake we quickly caught and corrected the morning after the election.
However, several days later, a leading national figure held a press conference in Michigan and misrepresented what had happened, falsely claiming that 2,000 votes for one presidential candidate had gone to another – thus pushing my colleagues and I into the national spotlight.
Wanting to set the record straight, I posted a video on Twitter to explain what had really happened – an innocent mistake, swiftly fixed, rather than some form of intentional voter fraud. In doing so, I unleashed a wave of hate, and soon my first death threat. The voicemail contained phrases like, “We will [expletive] take you out!”, “[Expletive] your family! [Expletive] your life!” and “We will surround you when you least expect it.”
But I was sadly one of many election officials made out to be an enemy of the people. And the ongoing attacks against officials like me have, unsurprisingly, led to large numbers of resignations – and the loss of many years of election experience and knowledge with it. Meanwhile, confidence in our democratic processes – and the people responsible for them – has only continued to decline.
That said, I remain firmly committed to restoring Americans’ faith in US democracy, and so this year I left a 32-year career in government and joined the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE), a cross-partisan organization made up of current and former election officials and law enforcement officers with the shared goal of protecting election officials and workers.
The committee has developed a five-step process that election officials and law enforcement can follow to better prepare for elections. It states that election officials and law enforcement should meet, share their situational knowledge, agree on a vision for establishing order and safety around election spaces, plan for a variety of possible disturbance scenarios and practice their responses ahead of each election.
It is my hope that more election officials follow our guidelines, so that public servants can once again do their jobs without fearing for their lives.
Tina Barton is the former appointed city clerk of Rochester Hills, Michigan, and 2020 Oakland county clerk Republican candidate. She currently serves as a senior election expert with The Elections Group.