Earley’s comments were echoed by dozens of others among a crowd of nearly 100 local election workers who gathered in Crystal City, Virginia, last week for an annual confab hosted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The depth of anxiety aired at the conference offers a small but alarming window into the challenges facing frontline election workers less than 10 months before Americans will head to the polls to choose their next commander in chief.

The November poll is expected to be beset by intense partisan scrutiny, insider threats and a deluge of AI-powered disinformation — making it a potential test of the strength of the American democratic system itself. And local election officials will be the ones charged with making the initial calls on what information voters can trust.

The two-day event was supposed to be a forum for local officials to review and rehearse often mundane election administration practices, like handling mail safely or responding to severe weather events.

But concerns about voter distrust and conspiracies cropped up repeatedly even though they claimed no formal place on the agenda. During group breakout sessions, hallway conversations and coffee breaks, attendees expressed both alarm and exasperation about how difficult it was to convince some Americans that the vote could be trusted.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, what we say or how much we educate the skeptics,” Kellie Harris Hopkins, the director of elections in Beaufort County, North Carolina, said during a roundtable. Roughly a dozen other officials nodded their heads, snapped their fingers or murmured in agreement.

While federal officials and state leaders often act as the face of election integrity at the national level, it is local election workers who actually run U.S. elections, doing everything from processing ballots to checking in voters.

That also means they’re the ones who most directly confront election conspiracy theories — and the violence and intimidation they increasingly fuel.

One in six election workers have experienced threats because of their job, and 77 percent said those threats had increased in recent years, according to a March 2022 study from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, capturing the impact of false election fraud claims by Donald Trump and his allies since 2020.

Many of the election workers at the conference said the reservoirs of public distrust were deeper than ever.

Conspiracy theories are “getting more and more volatile,” said Diane Coenen, the city clerk of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

The officials at the conference never blamed either political party for the problems they’re facing, and they frequently couched their comments with emphatic statements about their commitment to nonpartisanship.

But surveys show the deepest voter distrust lies heavily on the right today, and has ticked up on the eve of the next presidential election, even though Trump’s claims have been shot down repeatedly in courts.

A recent
Washington Post poll found that fewer Republicans (31 percent) now say Joe Biden’s 2020 election win was legitimate compared with 2021 (39 percent). Overall, just 62 percent of Americans accept Biden’s victory to have been legitimate.

The election officials at the EAC conference are used to fending off election hoaxes. Each of the individuals POLITICO spoke to could rattle off myriad anecdotes of past election conspiracy theories, some dating back more than 20 years.

But Trump, his allies and other far-right election skeptics have cast an unprecedented degree of scrutiny on frontline election workers themselves. And in at least two instances — in Mesa County, Colo., and Coffee County, Ga. — election workers have been accused of helping right-wing activists improperly access voting equipment in search of fraud.

Such incidents have left election workers in a new — and for many, frightening — place when it comes to conspiracy theories: becoming the center of the alleged subterfuge.

Unlike hoaxes that circulated in prior elections, “now it’s us [election workers] that’s doing it, not China,” Harris Hopkins said during the roundtable.

Increased harassment and intimidation of poll workers has also made it harder to retain experienced workers in the job, several attendees at the EAC conference said.

Last month, two Georgia election workers won a $148 million defamation suit against Trump ally Rudy Giuliani, who shared video of them at an absentee ballot counting facility and accused them of scanning ballots multiple times to benefit Biden.

“I literally felt that someone would attempt to hang me and there was nothing anyone could do about it,” Wandrea Moss, one of the workers, testified in December.

In the face of the physical threats — and their broader frustrations with inveterate skeptics — current and former election officials said they are redoubling their efforts to win voters’ trust.

Many said they’re now studying the ins and outs of voting technology, since many voters have questioned them about how exactly they can trust electronic machines that have become common targets of far-right activists.

“It’s all about transparency,” Cait Conley, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s top elections official, said on the sidelines of the conference. During a speech at the event, she also encouraged local officials to find ways to build trust with the public in advance of elections.

“Trust takes time to build. You don’t want to build it in a crisis,” she said.

Thad Hall, the director of elections in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, said he has made it a routine to conduct a full hand-recount of roughly 4 percent of the precincts in his county one week after Election Day.

That’s double what state law requires to audit results, but Hall says it’s helped to ensure voters trust the outcome.

“It’s a lot easier for people to blame us as election workers than to blame their candidate for running a bad campaign,” Hall said. But, he added, “we have a responsibility to make the public confident in the results.”

That type of extra effort by local officials could make all the difference in preventing a full-blown crisis this November, said Kim Wyman, Washington state’s former secretary of state and until last June the top elections official at CISA.

But it still won’t sway all voters, Wyman, a Republican, said.

“There is a solid part of the Republican Party’s base that is never going to be convinced.”

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