Election Officials Still Get Death Threats : The NPR Politics Podcast The nation's top election officials met in Iowa last weekend. They discussed the ongoing challenge presented by false conspiracy theories pushed by Republicans about the presidential election.

This episode: White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, voting and misinformation reporter Miles Parks, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Election Officials Still Get Death Threats

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DR D: Hey, y'all. This is Dr. D from St. Petersburg, Fla., and these...


DR D: ...Are my honey bees. This is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...


It is 2:05 p.m. on Wednesday, August 18.

DR D: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK. Here's the show.


DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: You know, I know bees are important and necessary to the ecosystem, but keep them away from me.

RASCOE: Yeah, but as long as you don't bother bees, they won't bother you. That's the great thing about a bee.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I lived across the street from a guy when I was growing up, who - in high school, we would walk home from the bus together. And he raised bees in his backyard. So I have very warm feelings about bees.

MONTANARO: Yeah. They also give you a warm feeling when they sting you.


RASCOE: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks, and I cover voting.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

RASCOE: So, Miles, this weekend, you were in Iowa with top U.S. election officials. They were gathering for one of their annual meetings. We are deep into 2021 at this point. But at this meeting, you were still hearing a lot about that election that happened last year in 2020. That's because, as has been talked about multiple times on this podcast, about 1 in 3 Americans still believe incorrectly that President Biden's win was due to fraud.

So you're at this meeting of election officials. How did all of that talk about fraud and - that which we know is not true. How did that come up in the context of this meeting, Miles?

PARKS: Honestly, it's impossible to avoid. So this is the meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State because, as we know, elections are run at the local and state level. So the most important voting officials in the country are all these individual secretaries of state of each of these states. And we're, yeah, like, almost more than nine months past the election. And every election official I talked to, Republican and Democrat, really was kind of in awe that we are still talking about the 2020 election results.

After each presidential election, there's kind of a theme that comes out of it, it seems like. 2016 was obviously cybersecurity. 2020 seems like physical security is kind of the big theme that people are thinking about and talking about. Specifically, threats to local election officials have really increased in the time since the election. I talked to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who has been the subject of a lot of those threats. Here's what she said.

JOCELYN BENSON: Whether it's at the state level or the local level, we are constantly hearing about threats, accusations. And I imagine that's only going to heat up now as we enter yet another election cycle. And so to me, this very much is the very unfortunate new normal for us in Michigan and election administrators in other states, where fearing for our safety and having to think about the safety of not just ourselves but our families, our staff is part of the job that we take on when we choose to administer democracy.

MONTANARO: You know, the fact that you have elections officials really needing to think about security is really kind of a fascinating and troubling thing in this country when I would say that - I bet most people don't even know who their secretary of state is in their state and...


MONTANARO: ...That they are among the most bipartisan officials in the country because, you know, if there's one thing Americans have been able to agree on, it's how to count votes and how to do it objectively and what the best practices for that - for doing that is. And that's exactly what this conference is about that Miles is going to. That's generally what the National Association of Secretaries of State is about. Even though there are no centralized elections in this country, each state runs it themselves, this is a group that's supposed to mete out the kinds of things that are best practices. And the fact that they're starting to hear and have been having to push off threats over the last several months is a real threat to democracy.

RASCOE: Yeah. And it's amazing to me, Miles, because when you said physical security, I thought you meant of the machines. I didn't even think about physical security for the workers. I mean, part of this is obviously people have completely bought into this false idea that there was widespread fraud in the election. It - did these, you know, election officials have any ideas for how to increase trust for people who feel like fraud is just everywhere when it comes to elections?

PARKS: Yeah, I think that was a big part of it is like - what can we basically do to prove to people that the elections were not rigged in some way? So that naturally brings up this idea of post-election audits and what are the best practices and the best way that we can conduct post-election audits. That was a huge point of conversation. The problem is in a lot of the places where these conspiracies have been spouting up, those sorts of audits were happening in 2020. I think about Georgia, and how many times did they count and then hand recount those same ballots? And yet there are still millions of people who believe that there was some sort of fraud in George's election system.

I talked to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who's a Republican, and he said he's been actually encouraging his county local election officials to go to state fairs, go to high schools, set up, basically, fake elections, how people vote in them and kind of walk them through the entire process.

FRANK LAROSE: Somebody is 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, or is that the machine that switched the votes from one candidate to another? And instead of, you know, dismissing that - because we know that that's clearly a false idea. But instead of dismissing that, engage with that person, show them the security protocols that we have in Ohio, teach them about logic and accuracy testing before each election, teach them about post-election audits, teach them about voting machines are never connected to the internet. I mean, this is demonstrable.

PARKS: The problem there, obviously, is that that's a little easier said than done, you know? Like, you can communicate with one voter who believes something, but then, you know, there might be 10 or 15 or 20 voters who weren't at that state fair, weren't at that high school, who were able to consume this kind of non-stop stream of information online.

MONTANARO: I'm really fascinated by the fact that the person who was elected to become the NASS president during this conference is a man named Kyle Ardoin, who is the secretary of state of Louisiana, which we know - pretty Trump - pretty pro-Trump state. He is - he said that he is - he said, I'm dead-dog tired of my staff and the clerks and registrars and their staffs getting poked at. He said he's tired of seeing these elections resolutions that are being passed throughout the country, you know, and he said that he looks forward to leading this association, you know, or having bipartisan conversations and sharing innovative practices. I mean, it's going to be interesting to see how someone like that is able to navigate these choppy Trump waters, especially in a state like his.

You know, Miles, I really wonder how nervous are they about the pressure that they're under from the right?

PARKS: I think they're terrified, to be completely honest, especially in those battleground states where, you know, people like Trump have kind of really specifically set their sights on places like Michigan and Arizona and Georgia. I mean, I talked to Jocelyn Benson, who I mentioned, who we heard from earlier about this specific thing, and what she said basically is that 2020 worked only because there were officials in all of these places who stood up for what was accurate and what was right. And I think people in these states are really scared that might not happen again in the future.

BENSON: When you look at why democracy prevailed in 2020, it was because good people in positions of authority did the right thing. It was because Brad Raffensperger said no when the president of the United States called and asked him to find votes. We need everyone to do that again in future elections if it's - if democracy is going to prevail again. And yet there are very serious warning signs that there - that people in positions of authority may not choose that route again.

RASCOE: It's a very tenuous thread, it seems like, by which democracy itself is hanging on. And that is - you know, that's fairly scary. But we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about what Miles learned in Iowa.

RASCOE: And we're back. Miles, part of the hard thing going forward is that a lot of these conspiracy theories, as we've talked about, is they're not coming from the outside, right?

PARKS: Yeah.

RASCOE: They're coming from within. They're coming from officials, people in power who should know better, who are saying that - their concerns about the elections. All of this is valid. And there are people like former President Trump saying outright it was stolen and just saying things that are not true and that are not backed up by serious evidence. So how did these officials that you talked to - how did they take that?

PARKS: So this issue actually came to the forefront really quickly on Saturday morning at one of the public panels at the conference where - this was during a Q&A session with the new head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, Jen Easterly. So Easterly's taking over for Chris Krebs, who everyone might remember as the official cybersecurity official who was fired by President Trump for saying basically the U.S. election in 2020 was the most secure in the nation's history.

And at this Q&A, the secretary of state of West Virginia, who's in charge of voting in West Virginia, who's a Republican, who's been an ardent Trump supporter and ardent supporter of Trump's efforts to overturn the election legally in the courts, he gets up and basically says, by saying the election was secure, you are making a partisan statement.


MAC WARNER: That request is that you help CISA depoliticize your organization.

PARKS: He also made a comment that the agency shouldn't take a position on masks. And so, you know, you kind of see this seeping in in some - you know, I would say limited instances - but in some instances of voting officials using their platform to kind of push partisan aims.

MONTANARO: You know, it's really interesting because what he's saying there is essentially don't stand for truth, you know, that if there's anything that people could possibly get upset about, if it makes them mad, stay away from that. Because if you get into something that could be tricky political territory, then, you know, you're going to turn people off who might not trust, you know, you in the first place. I think that's a very, very difficult position for secretaries of state in particular to be in when their goal is to maintain, you know, kind of the last objective truth that exists in this country, which is counting votes.

PARKS: Well, and I think that exact point, Domenico, came up because right after Warner finishes talking, the secretary of state, who's a Democrat from Colorado, says...


JENA GRISWOLD: Jump in to offer a counter view. I will say that my staff and myself got a week of death threats.

PARKS: So we were kind of seeing that conflict come to a head in public at this conference.

RASCOE: And so, Miles, when you're talking about the death threats and dealing with threats in a spotlight, a negative spotlight on election officials, how hard is it to try to recruit more people to become election officials? I would imagine, in the past, people who got into these jobs were not people who were, you know, thinking they were going to be worried about their safety.

PARKS: Well, let me ask you, Ayesha, when you put out a story that you've put a lot of work in and it's 100% accurate and it makes waves and it does really, really well, and then your editor comes up to you and is like that story was awful and you screwed up, even though there's no actual evidence that you screwed up anything, how would that make you feel? Because that's basically what has happened with the 2020 election, where...

RASCOE: Well, I would just be crying and devastated. I would be hurting (laughter).

PARKS: Exactly. And that's basically where we're at, where, I mean, these election officials, you know, administer the highest turnout election in history with, you know, we had more mail ballots than ever with fewer mail ballots rejected than in the 2016 election. So, you know, by any objective measure, they administered this election really, really well, and yet they're being treated like they failed it.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And could you blame them if they wind up looking for other jobs, if they pay the same or better? You know what I mean? I mean, that's a really difficult position for them to be in.

PARKS: Well, I think what's really scary, Domenico, if you were thinking about leaving this job, basically what the worry is from the people I talked to over the weekend is that if you have the people who are doing it because they believe in it or, you know, who just can't take it anymore, the people who are going to fill those vacancies potentially who are going to say, wow, this is worth it, are people who are doing it specifically for partisan gain. And so that is where it starts to get circular and even more dangerous is if the people who are getting the death threats can't take it anymore and the people filling those spots potentially are the people who are doing - want to do those jobs specifically to have kind of a hand on the scale.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, obviously, this is very serious. And the elections are going to keep going on. And these issues aren't going anywhere. But it looks like we're going to have to go somewhere. We're going to have to end this at least for right now.

PARKS: Don't worry. Midterms are right around the corner, Ayesha. We'll be talking about this real soon.

RASCOE: All right. That's it for today. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

RASCOE: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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