(Editor’s Note: Just Security is covering election protection ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential contest. An introduction to that coverage and links to future installments can be found here. Listen to an episode of The Just Security Podcast discussing many of the ideas in this article here)

Karen Brinson Bell has worked in elections administration for more than 17 years. It has always been a hard job – election law is always evolving, work leads to missing family events, and there is no rescheduling an election if you’ve got the flu. But the death threats — those are new.

The most threatening call came to her office’s main line, Brinson Bell recalled in a Zoom interview with Just Security. She works as executive director of the State Board of Elections in North Carolina. Staff reported that the man was ranting and said “that kind of thing could lead to someone being murdered.” Her office reported the incident to the FBI, but First Amendment protections are strong. The caller hadn’t specifically said that he was going to kill her. The FBI looked into it, but said there was nothing they could do.

The involvement of the FBI did get back to the caller, though, which Brinson Bell knows from his follow-up calls – this time to her direct line.

“We have a voicemail from him saying that that’s not gonna frighten him,” Brinson Bell said.

The calls to her direct line started about a year ago, maybe four or so since then. It’s unclear where the caller got her direct number, which the Board of Elections doesn’t publish. The caller told Brinson Bell a North Carolina state legislator gave it to him, though she doesn’t know whether that is true.

One of these calls came through during Just Security’s interview with Brinson Bell. Seeing the number, which she didn’t pick up, seemed to shake her a little, but she kept going. And that’s the case for her election work too.

“There is something about this work that gets in your blood, and you just can’t take that passion out,” she said.

Brinson Bell isn’t alone in facing threats. Minnesota’s Election Security Navigator, Bill Ekblad, can tick off examples from his state: a county election staffer followed to her car, an administrator getting calls on her home phone, another accosted at the election office counter.

Such cases illustrate the way that American democracy — and state and local election administrators in particular — are working under the looming specter of violence. This most visceral of the challenges to America’s voting system stems in significant part from the constant barrage of disinformation and misinformation. 

But it’s not the only concern facing those who administer the right to vote. As the United States moves closer to the 2024 contests – especially the high-profile presidential race that appears headed for a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — election administrators face a hailstorm of challenges to the way they do their jobs.

Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors, described what she hears from members.

They live 2020 every day, have lived it the whole time.”

Just Security spoke with election officials in eight states around the country. Many, though not all, come from states where Democrats control the legislature and governorship. Just Security reached out to election administrators in all 50 states. Republican election officials have defended the security of their states’ elections, although some have allowed plenty of room for conspiracy theories.

The interviews reveal a bombardment of overly broad public records requests, legal changes to the voting system, loss of institutional knowledge as veteran elections workers quit, and the urgent need to educate voters about the intricacies of election systems, too often without funding to do so.

They live 2020 every day, have lived it the whole time.”

Mis-, Dis-, and Mal-information

Many of the difficulties faced by election administrators were brought on by a flood of disinformation from Trump and his allies. That onslaught started even before votes were cast in 2020, with attacks on the shift towards mail voting, an option that was expanded dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. The disinformation blitz continued in the period between election day on Nov. 3, 2020, and Joe Biden being declared the president-elect on Nov. 7, 2020, as Trump and his camp inflamed supporters with false claims that he had won the election. The unrelenting verbal and legal assaults on the election crescendoed with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Despite the prosecution of many of the Jan. 6 rioters, the lies have persisted in conspiracy spaces throughout the past three years.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said that since 2020, election administrators have faced “what election wonks call misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information — what normal people call lies — designed to undermine our elections.”

Bellows, a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Maine, sees a direct line from disinformation campaigns to threats against election workers.

“The challenge with lies about our elections is that it breeds distrust and violent thoughts, and sometimes actions taken against people who are responsible for our elections,” she said.

Reports of such harassment have been widespread.

“Weaponization” of Public Records Requests

Another result of election disinformation is an increase in public records requests to elections offices across the country. At the North Carolina Board of Elections, Public Information Director Patrick Gannon has kept track of the number of public records requests since 2020.That year, Gannon estimates the office received about 100 requests. In 2021, the figure more than doubled to 229. In 2022, it soared to 330. This year, which Gannon said would usually be a slow year in between elections, the office has already received 179 requests.

North Carolina is not alone. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, called the pace of public records requests related to elections “nonstop.” In Maine, Bellows sees “mega, copy-paste queries that are not rooted in understanding of how elections work” and sometimes based on “terminology not used in Maine elections,” indicating requesters are taking lessons from others across the country. 

Bellows fears the spike reflects a “weaponization” of public information requests. The same could be said for the trends her counterparts elsewhere have described – requests that seem aimed not at obtaining answers to honest questions but rather at reinforcing conspiracy theories, overloading election workers, or sheer harassment and intimidation.

In general, public information requests are a good thing, and election administrators acknowledge the importance of transparency and understand the public, press, and researchers’ need to have access to information about elections.

Rhode Island Deputy Secretary of State Rob Rock says his office works to comply with even very broad requests, like for all of his office’s communications with third parties, or anything election-related. “The more that we provide this information,” he said, “the more that people that review this information see there’s no smoking gun.”

Public information requests, when used by journalists and researchers, are often narrow and targeted to specific documents produced by a government agency. Writing them well requires knowledge not only of an individual state’s public records laws, but of how offices store information.

Election officials described requests well outside that usually narrow scope. In Minnesota, administrators still see requests going back to the 2020 election, or requests to save records from that year. A common theme around the country is Dominion Voting Systems, subject of a right-wing conspiracy theory and a massive defamation lawsuit the company filed against Fox News and Trump associates. Even offices in states that have never worked with Dominion, such as North Carolina, get those requests, and the conspiracy theories continue, even though Fox News settled with Dominion earlier this year for almost $800 million, and noted in a statement “the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” 

For the election officials fielding the barrage of records requests, the larger the request, the more time it takes to fulfill. And requests don’t just come to state-level offices, but also to municipalities and counties. Bellows said some local clerks in Maine work only a few hours a week and don’t necessarily know how to respond to overly broad requests. The Secretary of State’s office advises local officials as best they can. “Sometimes I wonder if the requests are designed to impede the ability of clerks to do their jobs,” she said.

North Carolina’s Gannon described many of the requests he sees as “very broad” and “very time consuming,” and said the added work for already overburdened offices has “definitely taken a toll.” The Board of Elections has tried to be proactive, redesigning its website to include more data for the public. But Gannon said they’ve found that “more data means more requests.”

Another resulting complication is that requesters who feel their demands have been denied or delayed sometimes complain to their state representative. Brinson Bell said her office is working to make sure North Carolina legislators understand the work that goes into fulfilling a records request, sometimes indicating with a records response how long it took to produce.

Some requesters are fishing for information to support conspiracy theories and they either do not find what they are looking for or misinterpret the data, deliberately or otherwise. Rock, in Rhode Island, said, “100 percent of the requests that we’ve responded to have not yielded any organization getting information to say, ‘The election was stolen.’”

That’s because the election was not stolen. Over the past three years, governments, researchers, and journalists have repeatedly disproved allegations of widespread fraud in the 2020 vote. But that does not stop requesters from finding what they want in data. And, as North Carolina’s Gannon pointed out, “no data are perfect.”

Gannon described two examples where requesters believed they had found irregularities in voter rolls. In one instance, he said, requesters accused a voter over the age of 100 of not being alive to vote, even though the voter had been featured in news reports marking his milestone age. In another instance, requesters thought a woman was double voting, but in actuality twin sisters with similar names lived together at the same address.

In their daily work, when the board of elections feels an individual voter’s safety has been compromised, they intervene. In the case of the twin voters, Gannon replied to the individuals spreading the claim of voter fraud, explained the situation and clerical error, and asked that the individuals share the explanation with anyone who had seen the fraud claim. He also emphasized the way in which such claims can put individual voters in danger, even when they did not commit fraud.

Voter safety is particularly in question when requesters publish the “findings” of their requests, or what they believe to be data abnormalities, on newsletters and blogs. Some right-wing outlets often fueled the requests in the first place.

VoteBeat, a non-profit newsroom spinoff of the education-focused Chalkbeat, reported in a recent story that some requests come not from individuals but from a network of local “journalism” sites, funded by a conservative group that backs Trump’s agenda.

Election administrators agree that while the number of requests is high, the influx doesn’t necessarily represent large groups of local citizens concerned about election security. Bellows said many of the requests her office fields come from people outside Maine. Gannon said of requesters he believes are mostly from North Carolina, “it’s a small number of ‘election integrity’ advocates who are loud and make a lot of requests.” Those requesters then “use the response to suggest something is fraud.”

Spreading the Word

Election officials are fighting against the scourge of disinformation. They are going out to the people, trying to spread accurate information about election security, the elections profession, and how to distinguish trusted sources from those that are unreliable.

That includes meeting people where they are. Bellows said she still makes an effort to appear on conservative or right-wing talk radio to discuss how elections work. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, New York State Board of Elections Co-Executive Director Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky, a Democrat, did her best to accept every media request that came in.

Efforts to increase public understanding of elections did not start with Trump’s fraud allegations in 2020. North Carolina began its “voter confidence campaign” in 2019 in the wake of cybersecurity concerns in the 2016 election, a poll book problem the state believes to have been caused by human error, and the 2018 NC-9 absentee ballot scandal, which led to a new election.

While some elections administrators mounted public information campaigns on social media and in engagement with traditional news media, others emphasized more intimate settings. Rock said that in Rhode Island, Secretary of State Gregg Amore, a Democrat, is using his past experience as a high school teacher to go back into classrooms and talk to students about elections and the right to vote. In Maine, Bellows described her experience going to a local town meeting in response to a proposed plan to ban voting machines.

The originators of the proposal “were perfectly well meaning,” she said. They “didn’t want to make life harder for the clerk or volunteers. They just had been infected with this conspiracy.” Speaking at the meeting, Bellows got into the nitty gritty of election security — different types of machines, testing at the state and local levels, the use of observers and poll workers from both political parties. It worked, and the proposal was voted down.

“It took that one-on-one conversation — that larger conversation at the town level,” she said.

Conspiracy theories run deep for the people who believe them. In Hawaii, Chief Election Officer Scott Nago makes an effort to talk with people about election-security measures and sees those conversations working for people who are not already skeptical. “We aim towards the 99 percent of the population instead of the 1 percent of skeptics,” he said.

And with that 99 percent, Rock in Rhode Island says he does see results. “When we explain processes to people,” he said,“people walk away saying ‘I didn’t realize you do all this work to make sure that our elections are as secure as possible.’”

Rock also emphasized the importance of information on election security coming to voters from as local a source as possible, saying that people have more trust in their local government than in state sources, and more confidence in the state than in the federal government.

In Colorado, Griswold emphasized the quality of information sources. Guiding voters toward trusted sources also means guiding them away from less trustworthy ones. Griswold said it is important that Coloradans are aware of the way in which social media is being used for disinformation by foreign and domestic actors.

“We have learned from our allies in Eastern Europe,” she said. “The number one tool … is making sure that citizens are aware and know how to get a trusted source.”

A Moving Target

In addition to countering misinformation online and in the media, election officials are tasked with explaining election-system changes to the public, including about new rules still being implemented. In some cases, administrators are not even certain a rule will still be in effect by Election Day.

Many changes are straightforward and meant to expand access to voting. In 2020, Hawaii moved to voting entirely by mail. Nago said that by the 2022 midterms, fewer confused people were showing up at polls. His office has worked to explain the change was not temporary just for COVID, but a permanent shift. Rhode Island has codified some COVID-era changes to remove witness and notary requirements for absentee ballots, as well as bringing the deadline for accessible ballot requests in line with all other ballot-request deadlines.

But some states have adopted changes that will add extra steps to the voting process. North Carolina is in the process of implementing a voter ID requirement, as well as Senate Bill 747, which became law after the state legislature overrode Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill earlier this year. The measure shortens the deadline for mail-in ballots, implements a signature-verification pilot program, and bans private funding for election administration. Democrats are challenging portions of SB 747 in court.

That adds to the challenges Brinson Bell and her team face. They have to implement these legal changes, but at the same time be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice if the law is struck down. North Carolina also recently changed the makeup of its state and county boards of elections. That change will not be as visible to voters, but Brinson Bell is very aware of the timing. The new boards will go into effect Jan. 1, only 11 days before absentee ballots are sent out for the state’s presidential primary.

Local Officials Driven Out

All these factors have contributed to a stunning level of local election official turnover. The effect is uneven, with more liberal states like Rhode Island and New York being somewhat insulated. But in other states, some local officials have been driven out.

“That level of vitriol has contributed to people’s decision to leave the field,” said Bellows in Maine. 

The same is true in North Carolina, where Brinson Bell says many officials had genuinely put in decades of work and were ready to retire. “Many have expressed that they intended to get through the next presidential,” she said. But “because of the environment, the hostility, the questions of their personal integrity, the fuel is not in the fuel tank anymore.”

Since she came to head the North Carolina Board of Elections in 2019, Brinson Bell has collected data on turnover in local officials. Since that year, there have been 53 changes in county election directors over North Carolina’s 100 counties. Some counties even experienced more than one changeover.

That will have real effects for institutional knowledge heading into the 2024 election. By Brinson Bell’s count, as many as 27 county election directors will not have held the position in a presidential election before. “More than a quarter of our county directors haven’t done this,” she said.

Faith in High Turnout

In general, election officials across the country are trying to stay positive as they prepare for the 2024 presidential primaries, general election, and various state and local contests. Many look to their states’ voter turnout rates for proof that citizens have not given up on elections.

New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, a Republican, told Just Security his state has a culture of engagement with politics. After all, it usually hosts the nation’s first primary election, following the Iowa Caucuses, and will again on Jan. 23. In the 2022 midterm elections, more than 59 percent of eligible voters in New Hampshire cast a ballot, about 7 percent higher than the national average.

“If voters lose confidence, you’d expect to see the voter participation rate decrease,” Scanlan said.

In North Carolina, while Brinson Bell was disappointed in turnout for the 2023 off-year elections, she pointed to turnout of more than 75 percent in 2020, a high for the state not seen in decades, and 51 percent turnout in the 2022 midterms, which almost matched the 2018 contests.

“When you’re seeing the turnout still on par or greater,” she said, “that does say to us that the voters still have confidence.”

But officials also are trying to stay on their toes. The 2016 election period introduced concerns about cyberattacks from Russia on election systems and companies, and worries remain about the potential for foreign interference going forward. Disinformation and threats of violence marred the 2020 cycle. Some officials are now dreading the risk that artificial intelligence can make disinformation online more believable, targeted, and widespread.

In New Hampshire, Scanlan said, “election administration is kind of evolving over time and the name of the game is just to be flexible and to be prepared for anything.”

Hope and preparation can go hand in hand, according to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. “There is a mindset of `hope for the best, plan for the worst,’” he said. “There is a sense that we’re preparing for a coming storm.”

IMAGE: Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, former Georgia election worker, becomes emotional while testifying as her mother Ruby Freeman watches, during the fourth hearing held by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2022 in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)