(NEW YORK) — After officials in Nye County, Nevada, accepted a pitch from a Republican nominee for secretary of state to stop using voting machines for the general election and move to hand counting instead, long-time county clerk Sam Merlino decided to walk away from the job she loved.
For Merlino, a Republican, the move was the last straw as her county continued to be consumed by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
“It was just so disheartening after everyone had put in so much hard work, and then to have everybody question what we’ve been doing for years,” Merlino, who resigned two weeks ago, told ABC News. “I loved working with the voters, I was always at a polling place on Election Day. I loved the process.”
Since the 2020 election, states across the country have seen a slow exodus of election officials prompted by an unprecedented level of misinformation, harassment and threats, according to election experts and officials.
And now, with only three months until Election Day, election offices in at least nine states including Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and New Jersey have seen a new wave of departures and early retirements, ABC News has learned.
Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank that tracks election rules, told ABC News that the loss of so many local election officials is a “significant concern” because “there’s a huge amount of institutional knowledge that we are losing across the country.”
“Election administration has grown increasingly complex over the past few decades, and election officials are perpetually trying to balance technology with accuracy and reliability, and have an accurate voter registration list and make it as easy as possible for eligible voters to cast a ballot that’s accurately counted,” Howard said.
‘We can’t get our real work done’
In Gillespie County, Texas, the county’s entire three-person election department resigned last week due to threats and misinformation, a staffer told the Fredericksburg Standard.
“It is concerning that it’s happening this close to an election and that now the county officials are scrambling to put together a team that is going to be qualified and trained to run the election in November,” said Sam Taylor, spokesperson for Texas Secretary of State John Scott.
Taylor told ABC News that Texas has seen a 30% turnover rate among county officials over the past two years, with several officials across the state resigning due to threats of violence.
In a report released this month by the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, election administrators expressed concerns about staffing ahead of the midterms.
“[T]he job of an Election Official has changed dramatically over the years and it’s not a position that just anyone can learn in a few short months,” Arizona election officials said in the report. “It takes years to become an industry expert. The fact so many of us are leaving the field should concern every person across the country.”
The report detailed how false claims of election fraud in the 2020 election have led election administrators to face a combination of threats, lawsuits and misinformation that one election official said were “distracting us to the point where we can’t get our real work done.”
‘Disrespect and disdain’
Efforts to discredit and overturn election results have been fueled and supported on a national scale by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who pushed false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election after Donald Trump lost his reelection bid. This past weekend, Lindell hosted the “Moment of Truth Summit,” where hundreds of people gathered in Springfield, Missouri, to hear him and other election deniers rail against voting machines and discuss their ongoing efforts to contest the 2020 vote by, among other things, petitioning election officials for voting machine information and election data.
Among those who appeared at the event virtually was Colorado county clerk Tina Peters, who became a leading figure in the election denier movement last year when she was accused of and then indicted on election tampering charges after authorities say the election software she used for her county wound up in the hands of a consultant, and screenshots of the software appeared on right-wing websites. Peters pleaded not guilty in early August.
Peters, who in June lost the Republican primary in her bid to become Colorado secretary of state, detailed for summit attendees how she had paid for a recount in that race, and urged them to be “courageous” in confronting election results.
“Tina Peters lost, started talking about fraud and how election officials are in on it,” Matt Crane, the director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, told ABC News. “She lost by 15 points and yet she still requested a recount that’s taken time away from clerks who would have otherwise been working to prepare for the general election. All of that continues to put pressure on clerks.”
Like many other states, Crane said that Colorado has seen election officials resign or retire early, ahead of the November election.
In Florida, Supervisor of Elections Mark Early told ABC News that election officials in the state have “felt the hate” from 2020 election deniers.
“It’s the disrespect and the disdain that your neighbor might have for you nowadays,” Early said. “Now the threats are out there and people are looking at you out of the corner of their eye and just kind of shaking their head or just very blatantly coming up to you and saying negative things, even if it’s not a death threat.”
“All of this is taking a toll on our ability to conduct elections,” explained Early, who said there have been numerous resignations and early retirements. “We’re losing staff members.”
A former Georgia election worker testified at the House Jan. 6 hearings in late June that after former President Trump and his lawyers spread lies about her actions counting Georgia 2020 ballots, violent threats toward her and her family forced her out of her job.
“It’s turned my life upside down. I no longer give out my business card … I don’t want anyone knowing my name,” Wandrea Moss testified.
As more and more election administration posts are left empty, Howard said a recent Brennan Center survey showed that officials are concerned about who’s going to take the place of those leaving.
“Some of the election officials are concerned that the people that are going to replace the outgoing election officials believe the lies that have been told about how our elections run and are not going to understand how the system actually works,” Howard said. “Certainly, if you have somebody that is an election denier that’s responsible for running the election, that’s a concern.”
Even more concerning, Howard said, is that she expects another exodus of election workers after the 2022 election cycle — potentially leaving even more vacancies ahead of the 2024 presidential cycle.
‘It’s just too much’
Nevada, too, has seen a wave of resignations in at least half a dozen counties over the last few months as election deniers continue to challenge the 2020 results.
While numerous departing officials cite non-work-related issues as the reason for their departure, many point to how difficult their jobs have become over the last two years as they’ve faced increased scrutiny and mounting hostility from skeptics.
Last month, Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula resigned after 15 years with the registrar’s office. She told the Nevada Independent in January that she had received death threats and was concerned for the safety of her front-line election workers who face voters in person.
At the time, Spikula said she had already lost one staff member to another county department, but that she loved her job and was remaining in her position. But six months later — two weeks after Nevada held its state primary — she submitted her resignation.
“It’s just too much,” Washoe County Communications Manager Bethany Drysdale said of the harassment that local election workers have faced over the past few months, including being followed to their cars and being called “traitors.”
“It’s really difficult to pull the really long hours and face the animosity from the public,” Drysdale said. “Our interim registrar of voters is really focused on keeping hours down and making sure that nobody is too overwhelmed or too overworked leading up to the election, so they can really be here and give it their all during the election.”
In Pennsylvania, Berks County Elections Director Paige Riegner submitted her resignation this month following May’s state primary, after the Pennsylvania Department of State sued Berks and two other counties for excluding mail-in ballots that didn’t have the date handwritten on the security envelope.
And in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, election director Michael Susek resigned last month after only eight months on the job, to go work for an organization “committed to advancing election integrity and the profession as a whole on a national level,” according to local reports. His departure made him the state’s fourth county election director to step down since 2019.
Robin Major, the Board of Elections administrator in Monmouth County, New Jersey, said that for small local election offices, losing just one or two staffers can put a significant strain on the department.
Major told ABC News that in recent months her office has lost two out of its eight staff members, with one of them retiring and another going to work in a different department.
“I think we’re seeing it across the state,” Major said. “We have seen a number of colleagues in our professional association who have decided to retire because the amount of work is just overwhelming and we’re not properly compensated” — a situation Major said has been exacerbated by a new statewide mandate requiring counties to conduct an election audit after every general election.
Major also said that “people questioning things” has put an extra burden on her office.
We’re getting an increased number of requests on a daily basis that are just impossible to fulfill,” she said. “So that puts on a lot of pressure, also, while you’re trying to run an election.”
Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at the liberal watchdog group Common Cause, said that the increased retirements and resignations mean that the country must invest in “the infrastructure to train the next generation of election workers.”
“We’re going to run an election and we’re going to make sure people can vote — we’re just going to have to use all hands on deck,” she said of the upcoming midterms. “But we should be looking towards a long-term solution of proper investment in the election system.”
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