When local elections are threatened, what are the national implications?

McCain Institute discussion held as part of 'Defending American Democracy'

Row of voting booths.

Photo courtesy iStock/Getty Images

Election officials have been under unprecedented pressure and attack across the country. From Arizona to Florida to Michigan, officials face heightened threats far and wide, leading many to fear for their safety, and recent disinformation campaigns and attempts to delegitimize election results and restrict voter access to the ballot box represent a mortal danger to American democracy, which cannot survive without public servants who can freely and fairly run our elections.

As part of its “Defending American Democracy” series, Arizona State University’s McCain Institute held a discussion on March 2 with election officials from key battleground states, focused on the democratic impact of threats to election integrity and what can be done to combat this issue.

“The election officials of this country, of both parties, throughout the country, did an amazingly heroic job of facilitating our democracy,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, who moderated the event. “Unfortunately, perhaps because of that success, and because of an undermining of our elections in our democratic process by the losing presidential candidate, we have seen unprecedented attacks on the civil servants (and) on the public servants (from) both parties who run elections in this country.”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who spoke at the event, was one of many battleground state election officials targeted by violent threats following the election’s aftermath. “That night is where people showed up at my home and were threatening my family and shouting into bullhorns,” Benson said.

She explained that Michigan used both state and federal funding to build a safe, transparent and secure election infrastructure to combat election-related disinformation.

“I think the other thing that's important to keep talking about is, you know, what's the goal of these lies? What's the goal? Part of it is people trying to become famous or run for office or raise money off of these lies and conspiracy theories. But there's also a deeper, more rooted goal, an overarching goal, that actually connects the work of foreign adversaries to create chaos and cause citizens to doubt our elections and ultimately disengage,” Benson said. “They know where to find more data if they need to. So that's the work we all really need to do — invest in our elections so that we can educate voters and, really, all together work to be critical thinkers and truth tellers. And, again, to me, that's the path out of this. It's a path that's available for all of us to take.”

Bill Gates, chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Maricopa County, Arizona — the fourth-largest county in the country and the largest in Arizona — recalled a sense of pressure that he had never before experienced regarding the controversial election audit ordered by the state Senate.

“The Attorney General threatened to take over $700 million in state shared revenues away from Maricopa County, which would have put us out of business, because we refused to turn over routers at the request of President Trump because he wanted to quote one of the routers,” Gates said. “These routers had sensitive information that would have put law enforcement operations in peril. We pushed back, but in the end, we had to work out a settlement to avoid that.”

Across the nation, state legislatures have taken steps to strip election officials of the power to run, count and certify elections, consolidating power in their own hands over processes intended to be free of partisan or political interference.

Brian Corley, supervisor of elections in Pasco County, Florida, emphasized that election professionals are, by and large, committed to free, fair and open elections.

“It doesn't matter if you're one of the 67 county supervisors in Florida or if you're in Michigan, Arizona or anywhere in between, election administrators are professionals," he said. "We are made up of varied races, genders and ethnicities, backgrounds, political persuasions, of course, but at the end of the day, we're politically neutral, politically agnostic and professionals, and to see our profession and those who are in the trenches of democracy being called traitors and treasonous is just unacceptable.”

Panelists agreed that rebuilding faith in the electoral process will be slow-going, but that it can be done.

“How we do it,” said Corley, “is one voter at a time.”

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