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….