Defiance County, Ohio, does not loom large in the story of the 2020 presidential election.
This rural slice of northwest Ohio—population 38,000—went for Donald Trump by more than 30 percentage points. The county has long favored Republicans, and it hasn’t been competitive in a very long time.
But for the people who run elections in Defiance County, the job has never been harder. “In the last three years, this job has basically tripled,” said Tonya Wichman, the county elections director.
It’s not just the endless stream of calls and letters. It’s what they entail for election workers these days: near-constant harassment and denigration from people who, largely spurred on by Trump’s election fraud conspiracies, have developed a toxic distrust of the election system and those who run it.
“It’s a disheartening thing… to have people tell you how bad you do your job when you’re going above and beyond what they expect from you,” Wichman says. “They’re listening to people speak about our jobs without asking us about our jobs.”
In response, the Defiance County elections office has upgraded every aspect of its security, and there is an additional physical barrier between staff and those who walk in. They instruct poll workers what to do if they see a suspicious car at a voting location, which Wichman says has not been necessary before.
Wichman stresses that election workers love what they do and are committed to protecting the integrity of the system—no matter what. But for some in the field, the work has simply become too overwhelming.
A longtime election official at the county recently resigned, citing the unmanageable workload, Wichman said. Some poll workers have decided not to volunteer anymore because they do not feel safe.
More than a year after the 2020 election concluded—and months away from the pivotal 2022 midterms—election officials around the country have strikingly similar stories. Whether it’s in jurisdictions where Trump sought to sow conspiracies, like Milwaukee and Atlanta, or sleepy counties like Defiance, there’s an unprecedented, nationwide wave of rage directed at election workers, from secretaries of state to volunteer poll workers.
Sometimes that rage takes the form of harassing phone rants directed at election officials, or filing reams of purposely burdensome records requests. Other times, it has taken the form of menacing personal messages scrawled near an election official’s home, or death threats that prompt law enforcement investigation.
Not every election office has been touched by this phenomenon, but it’s widespread enough to seriously alarm officials and election experts nationwide.
David Becker, a leading election lawyer, recently co-founded the Election Official Legal Defense Network, a group that seeks to provide legal resources to election workers facing various threats. He has spoken with dozens of them nationwide and told The Daily Beast that they “feel like no one has their back right now.”
“If we lose these election officials, and we’re losing more than ever before, our democracy is at risk,” Becker said.
The alarm has reached the halls of Congress. After Senate Democrats failed to advance a voting rights and election reform package in January, a bipartisan group of senators began to discuss a narrower bill to shore up the country’s election systems. That could include ways of supporting election workers in crisis.
One possibility being considered is to make criminal penalties stiffer for people who threaten or harass election workers. Several states, including Washington state and Vermont, have passed laws in recent months doing just that.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), one of the senators studying expanded support for election workers, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that she is “encouraged by the progress we are making in our discussions and the ongoing, good-faith efforts from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to address this shared concern.”
“We agree on the urgent need to protect election workers and that our federal laws must be strengthened and clarified to that end,” Shaheen continued.
The challenge for senators, however, is doing something that can make a difference for election workers and can also get the 60 votes needed to become law. Some senators are skeptical of new legal protections for election workers, and want a compromise package to narrowly focus on amending the centuries-old Electoral Count Act, which Trump and his supporters tried to exploit on Jan. 6.
Election workers around the country, and their advocates, are watching Congress closely. Many believe that what lawmakers do—or don’t do—could have a real impact on a crisis that threatens to erode the foundations of election systems nationwide.
With unprecedented numbers of election workers quitting their jobs in jurisdictions around the country, officials warn that a lack of support from Washington could only accelerate the drain of passion and expertise.
In interviews, a half-dozen election workers from different parts of the country emphasized their commitment to the work. But they also said they would not only welcome any help from Congress—on a basic level, they are simply relieved that the nation’s federal lawmakers are taking their problems seriously.
Zachary Manifold took over as the elections director of Gwinnett County, Georgia, six months ago. The recent turnover has been so stark in greater Atlanta that Manifold guessed he is now one of the most senior election officials in the 11-county metro area.
“It’s been hard to recruit people to come into the industry,” Manifold said. “So, anything that gives out confidence that people should get involved in elections, any step in that direction is a good step.”
“It’s sad we even need to contemplate the need for protection of election workers,” said Wesley Wilcox, elected as a Republican to serve as the chief elections official in Marion County, Florida.
“But it is good news that some of the things my colleagues have experienced across the country have gotten to the federal level,” Wilcox said. “To me, it’s at least, we’re having a conversation that we need to do something.”
There are no simple answers to what that solution should be. Virtually all policymakers and experts recognize that the roots of this crisis are complicated, interconnected, and difficult to resolve through legislating. And as long as Trump continues to make the Big Lie an article of faith in the GOP that is constantly parroted in right-wing media, it may be impossible to fully resolve.
But election officials and experts agreed that Congress could start to attack the problem in two ways: criminal penalties, and ensuring those on the front lines have the resources they need.
Washington state’s new law, for instance, would make harassment of an election worker a class C felony—on par with assaulting a police officer—that can carry as many as five years in prison.
Establishing a similar statute on the federal level could provide a strong deterrent to those who might threaten or harass them, said Becker.
“Anyone who would seek to commit what I think of as an act of domestic terrorism, intended to inflict fear on civil servants doing their civic duty, those people should be held criminally liable and should have to pay a price for that behavior,” Becker said.
Those who experienced first-hand the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election recall how little accountability there was for those who harassed or threatened election workers.
Clare Allenson, of the League of Conservation Voters chapter in Michigan, was an official observer of the absentee ballot counting process in Detroit in the days after the presidential election. She witnessed how Republican challengers, who traveled to the overwhelmingly Democratic city to try and throw out absentee ballots, acted with near-impunity in intimidating election workers.
Allenson recalled that, inside the tallying center, those GOP challengers chanted “stop the count!” and encircled the poll workers trying to do their jobs. Police threw out people who banged on the windows and refused to wear face masks, but that was the extent of the consequences for the disrupters.
The least that federal policymakers can do going forward, Allenson said, is to ensure election workers are treated like “essential infrastructure.”
“The biggest thing is accountability,” Allenson continued. “If you make a threat, it needs to get pursued, and there should be consequences for people who are making threats to those who are administering our elections, whether it’s full-time as a clerk or one day as a poll worker.”
Some experts are skeptical that toughening criminal penalties will do much, however, and point to the number of highly publicized cases of election worker threats—which already likely met thresholds for criminal behavior—that did not result in prosecution.
Some lawmakers in both parties share that skepticism. Although he admitted it would be “popular” to pass tougher criminal penalties, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees elections, said “most of these things are already against the law.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former Attorney General of Connecticut, said “criminal punishment is often a real deterrent, but prevention often depends on scrutiny and real time oversight at the polls.”
To that end, a more straightforward way that Congress could help election workers is the easiest one: appropriating some cash.
Election administration has been perennially underfunded, from the state to city levels. Heading into the 2022 elections, many jurisdictions are facing grave budget shortfalls amid rising costs and other challenges, The Washington Post reported.
Increased federal funding to elections agencies could give them tools not only to protect themselves from danger, but replenish depleted workforces and fund outreach to communities, said Christopher Piper, the Virginia state director of elections.
“Threats are one thing,” Piper told The Daily Beast. “There’s a lot of things that are making the job much more difficult.”
Recently, Piper said that Virginia used federal grant money to establish a program to help protect election workers’ information online and digitally. Virginia continued funding it, but other jurisdictions often are not so lucky, particularly smaller city and county election administrators.
“If the state doesn’t step in, or the federal government, to sustain it,” these programs “go away just as quickly,” Piper said.
A larger problem than the effectiveness of specific solutions: it’s far from guaranteed that the Senate does anything soon—or at all. After talks moved quickly on bipartisan election reform in early February, the pace has slowed down as senators grapple with the details and face skepticism from their colleagues.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), a leader of the group, said last week that senators were “making progress, but it is evident that the complexity is such that it’s going to take a while.”
Election officials, like Wichman, in Defiance County, urged Congress to seek the perspectives of the people who are weathering these conditions out of their passion for the work.
“It’s great that they’re talking about it,” Wichman said. “But they need to talk to the people in our offices—talk to the election officials.”