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Death Threats And Conspiracy Theories: Why 2020 Won't End For Election Officials

Jen Easterly, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, speaks with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, left, during the summer meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Jen Easterly, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, speaks with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, left, during the summer meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

It's been more than nine months since Election Day 2020, but as the nation's top election officials met in Iowa over the weekend, it was clear the shadow of that race will stretch far into the future of American democracy.

The conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from former President Donald Trump has upended almost all aspects of election administration: Local officials who a decade ago would have gone about their bureaucratic business in relative anonymity are facing threats and intense pressure, and a large chunk of American voters have no confidence the system is fair.

"This is the very unfortunate new normal," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, who had dozens of armed protesters visit her home in December after last year's election.

Elections are run in the U.S. at the state and local levels, so the top voting officials across the country are usually secretaries of state. They met this weekend in Des Moines for their first in-person gathering since January 2020.

The "Big Lie" persists

A third of Americans still believe that Joe Biden's victory last November was due to fraud in the elections system, even though there's never been evidence to support that conclusion.

At this weekend's conference the issue came to the fore almost immediately, when word spread among the secretaries Friday that someone from a far-right conspiracy outlet was said to be in attendance at the conference, according to a state official who spoke to NPR on background about the issue.

The gathering of election officials was also in stark contrast to a conspiracy-minded event happening simultaneously less than 300 miles away.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell hosted a "symposium" where he falsely claimed he would finally reveal proof that the 2020 election was rigged in some way.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who is also the president of the National Association of Secretary of States, has overseen five presidential elections and said she's used to there being some level of discontent among voters right after an election. But what's disconcerting and unusual is how long the partisan furor from last November's results has lasted.

"Usually once the election is done and in the can, so to speak, the rhetoric starts to die down and we all start to accept whatever the new reality is and move forward," Toulouse Oliver said. "We've never seen anything like what's happened... I cannot believe it. It's beyond ridiculous at this point."

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, says he's encouraging local officials to set up mock elections at fairgrounds and local high schools to engage in-person with people who are consuming misinformation online.

"Somebody's going to come up to the Board of Elections booth, and they're going to say, 'Hey, is that the machine with the secret algorithm from China?' " LaRose said. "And instead of dismissing that, because we know that that's clearly a false idea, engage with that person, show them the security protocols that we have in Ohio, teach them about logic and accuracy testing before each election... I mean, this is demonstrable."

Election officials spent the weekend talking about audits and best practices meant to instill confidence in election results. But the much harder problem is how to effectively communicate those practices to voters, and compete in an information environment when it's so easy for people to consume and create false information.

"There has been no real accountability for [Trump] or anyone else who used positions of authority to spread misinformation," Benson said. "Without that accountability, without any consequences for anyone who has used their positions as lawyers or otherwise to spread misinformation. We we must expect to see it continue."

Physical safety

A byproduct of those sorts of conspiracy theories is threats to local election officials, who in some voters' minds are supposedly allowing or encouraging corruption.

That issue was at the heart of the tensest moment of the public portion of the conference, which came Saturday morning, during a presentation from the new director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Jen Easterly.

Easterly takes over for Chris Krebs, the agency's first director, who was fired by Trump after insisting that the 2020 election was the "the most secure in American history."

Krebs also oversaw an effort by CISA called Rumor Control aimed at correcting election misinformation. The site publicly debunked many of the falsehoods about the election that Trump and people in his orbit relied on to sow doubt in the results.

During the question and answer portion of Saturday's session with Easterly, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican who has been a vocal supporter of Trump and legal efforts aimed at overturning the results of the election, seemed to indicate that claiming the election was secure was in some way a partisan statement.

"My question is in the form of a request, and that request is that you help depoliticize your organization," Warner said, before bringing up Krebs' remarks about the security of the election.

Warner also mentioned a recent DHS bulletin that warned about an uptick in online calls for violence related to election-related conspiracies. Warner said the bulletin was meant to "muzzle" people who were planning to attend Lindell's rally in South Dakota.

Immediately, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, jumped in.

"To offer a counter view, I will say my staff and myself got a week of death threats because of the pillow conference, so we did appreciate the DHS announcement," Griswold said. "So, thank you."

In an interview with NPR after the session, Griswold read a number of comments on her Instagram, which referenced her death.

"Do you feel safe? You shouldn't," said one comment, which has 60 likes.

Officials across the country have described similar threats, and while Griswold says she "won't be intimidated," there was consensus over the weekend that it may be more difficult to recruit new election workers in this sort of environment.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she's also worried about an exodus of current election workers.

"We haven't decompressed from 2020, we're still every day living it," said Wyman, a Republican who spent much of last year debunking Trump's false claims about mail voting. "It takes a toll. It's exhausting... Emotionally, physically, mentally exhausting."

And even more demoralizing, Wyman said, is that there's not a clear solution.

Whereas the contentious 2000 election led to federal legislation that revamped voting equipment, the issues Trump and his base have with the 2020 election aren't based on real problems, so they are harder to address.

"It doesn't matter what I present to critics or challengers. It doesn't matter what the answer is. It will always be something new," Wyman said. "It's never-ending. And that's what worries me about 2020: How do we move on from here?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.