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Since When Is Being an Election Official a Job to Die For?

Local election officials around the country are getting death threats. Many are quitting their jobs. The Justice Department needs to do something.

Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate in front of the Maricopa County Elections Department office on Election Day.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate at a “Stop the Steal” rally in front of the Maricopa County Elections Department office on November 7, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Do you remember last November, when Arizona’s electoral votes hadn’t yet been called in the presidential election, and pro-Trump forces gathered outside the Maricopa County Recorder’s office? It’s been a while; maybe you’ve forgotten. But Adrian Fontes hasn’t. He was the Maricopa County Recorder.

“We had a parking lot full of armed protesters, a lot of them wielding AR-15-type weapons,” Fontes told me last week. It was, he says, terrifying: “And it wasn’t just me. It was every worker, Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Fontes is one of a growing number of state and local election officials who have received death threats from pro-Trump … what’s the word I’m searching for here? Protesters is way too dignified. Legitimate protest is peaceful and not built on intimidation. Whatever the word, the reality is dire: Election officials—Election officials! Bureaucrats whose jobs were considered completely uncontroversial until Donald Trump came along!—are getting death threats. Some are quitting. In some states, laws are being written that bar officials from carrying out some of their normal duties because doing so might expand the franchise and produce the “wrong” result. 

Democracy is snuffed out in stages. It starts with a fascist demagogue turning a hefty percentage of the citizenry against democracy. But at some point, the plot must advance from the rhetorical to the mechanical—the death sentence has to be carried out by willing participants, state legislators mostly, who write laws that simply invalidate a democratic process that has been accepted for decades by both parties, until now. Until Trump.

That’s where we are now. These people, from the agitators to state legislators, have made it clear to the rest of us that they’re planning on stealing the next two elections. If they succeed, democracy as we’ve known it is done for. The United States will become what the political scientists call a “competitive authoritarian” regime: It will vaguely resemble democracy in that we’ll still have, say, a free press and technically independent courts, but the system will be permanently rigged.

This is fascism. Fascism is impossible without street-level thuggish intimidation, and that’s where these threats come in. Fontes would not give me the specifics of the threats made against him. “I’m not going to give the fools who did that any more power,” he said. “They don’t deserve that.” 

But in a video put together by the Brennan Center for Justice that features a dozen threatened officials from around the country, Fontes notes that “we had go-bags ready for my family and my children.” He lost his bid for reelection last November but says, “The Republican who beat me in November, he’s getting threats now, too.”

Supporters of President Donald Trump stand with rifles at a “Stop the Steal” rally in front of the State Capitol on November 7, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Others said similarly horrifying things. Lisa Deely of Philadelphia, on reading some Facebook posts about her: “Commenters were saying we should find out where she lives, we should hang her for treason, she should be shot.” Joseph Gloria of Clark County, Nevada: “My son began getting threats that were intended for me.”

Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at Brennan, told me that in a survey Brennan conducted, one out of five election officials feared for their lives. “Some elections officials have quit because of this,” Norden told me. “There’s an election official in Iowa who says it made her sick to her stomach, and she was afraid of being prosecuted, so she just quit.”

She’s not alone. The Chicago Tribune ran an article last week that opened like so: “There is no shortage of job openings for local election officials in Michigan. It’s the same in Pennsylvania. Wisconsin, too.” The Trib article raises the sobering question: With all these decent and honorable public servants being intimidated into leaving these jobs, who will take them? I think you know the grim answer to that question as well as I do. Big Lie people.

What is to be done here? Well—fight. For one thing, threatening violence to a public official is against the law, and it can and should be prosecuted, at least in jurisdictions where we have honest prosecutors. 

But this has not been happening. “I know of maybe one or two prosecutions of these folks,” Norden says. “This clearly breaks state and federal law. And a lot of these things are done over state lines, so there’s definitely a federal angle to this.” Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice, he believes, “could be doing more. In the past they’ve created task forces where they’ve provided resources to states, where they coordinate and do their own prosecutions or get states to prioritize.”

It seems high time to step these prosecutions up. What are people waiting for? Choose your metaphor: The needle is in the red; it’s five minutes to midnight. Right now. 

“The liars have to stop lying, and the fascists have to come out and admit that they don’t believe in America,” Fontes said. “What can the rest of us do? Fight like hell against this.”

Maybe now there’s a chance to pass federal legislation to protect voting rights, with Joe Manchin’s movement in a positive direction last week. But the stories of Fontes and others like him remind us that there are other fronts in this war. The risk here is not in being too alarmist. It’s in not being alarmist enough.