Key local election officials in battleground states still face threats over a year after 2020 election
The year after a presidential election is normally slow for Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. There are local elections to administer, but the quieter schedule gives her a chance to start planning for the next big election year, organizing records and working on professional development.
But 2021 wasn't a traditional post-presidential election year. She and her colleagues have been dealing with new election law proposals in the Wisconsin Legislature and responding to mountains of record requests. And then there are also the threats that began after the 2020 election and kept coming, even after Joe Biden took the oath of office.
"I have been told that I deserve to be hung in a public square," Woodall-Vogg said. "I received a letter to my home calling me a traitorous c***."
At about 4 a.m. on the day after the election, the results from Milwaukee's absentee votes catapulted then-candidate Joe Biden into the lead over former President Donald Trump in Wisconsin. Up until that hour, Mr. Biden was trailing Trump by about 107,000 votes.
Like Woodall-Vogg, election workers around the country faced threats and pressure in the weeks following the November election, leading up to the attack at the Capitol on January 6, and continued afterward.
The threats against Woodall-Vogg picked up in late July, after a conservative website published an email exchange between Woodall-Vogg and election consultant Ryan Chew from 4 a.m. on November 4, 2020. Chew in his email wrote in part, "Damn, Claire, you have a flair for drama, delivering just the margin needed at 3:00 a.m." Woodall-Vogg replied about 10 minutes later to say, "Lol. I just wanted to say I had been awake for a full 24 hours!"
"We're going to try you and we're going to f****** convict your piece-of-s*** a** and we're going to hang you," one voicemail reviewed by CBS News said. An email sent to Woodall-Vogg and Chew threatened, "no need to look over your shoulder. Not yet, at least."
There were dozens of menacing emails. While Woodall-Vogg believed many of them were empty threats, she decided to take her children out of the state for 10 days. The threats were referred to the FBI, and her office is undergoing security upgrades.
Woodall-Vogg told CBS News, "I regret responding to (Chew's email), but I don't think my response was inappropriate." Election experts fear that this kind of harassment, which has not stopped in the 14 months since the election, will drive officials like her to leave their jobs.
A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice in April 2021 found that one in three election officials felt unsafe because of their job and about 20% listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern. Some election officials have already decided to quit or not seek reelection when their term expires.
"This is a very hard job at its best. Many are now asking themselves the question, 'is it worth it,'" said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. "We're in danger of losing a generation of election administration experience."
Becker also fears that departing officials might be replaced by people with a penchant for "partisan hackery."
"The more you remove professionalism, the more likely there will be uncertainty and chaos in the post-election period," Becker said.
To help election officials address the threats against them, Becker launched the Election Official Legal Defense Network with election lawyers Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg. The group connects election workers with pro bono attorneys for legal counsel.
After the 2020 election, Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt faced intense threats while he was working nonstop at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where Philadelphia was counting votes. The venue was surrounded by law enforcement, giving Schmidt a sense of security while he was at work, but outside, his children also became targets.
"Because the Philadelphia Police Department did such an incredible job…following my kids everywhere they went, I wasn't really worried," Schmidt said. "The whole point of the whole thing is to try to make you worry, right? So, stressing about it is kind of capitulating to their psychological terrorism."
But the threats against Schmidt didn't end when Mr. Biden was sworn into office. Pennsylvania Senate Republicans launched a review of the 2020 election last year, which renewed the threats against him.
"The threats resume whenever that chatter increases," Schmidt said. But he noted that the threats aren't as specific or as graphic as the post-election threats he endured.
Schmidt this week started a new position as the CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia good government group. Schmidt emphasized that he did not take the role to escape the threats and said the position will still keep him heavily involved in Philadelphia elections.
"It's not like I'm going from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon," Schmidt said. "I'm staying in Philadelphia focused on elections. So, in a lot of respects I'm not going anywhere and can dedicate a lot of my attention to combatting election lies."
Michigan Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson also worries about what officials will face heading into the 2022 midterms.
"This current moment is really going to get much worse as we enter the midterm season," Benson said.
In December 2020, protesters showed up outside of her home to demand that Benson stop the presidential election from being certified. As misinformation and disinformation about elections continues to fester, she worries that violent threats will turn into actions.
"My biggest fear is that someone's going to get hurt," Benson said. "That these threats that occur online, through voicemails, through the anger that we're seeing that is being generated through misinformation and deception and lies, is going to manifest itself in violence like we saw at our U.S. Capitol on January 6."
Woodall-Vogg is also bracing for 2022 because Wisconsin will have highly competitive and closely watched races for governor and U.S. Senate.
"I do worry for my safety when I look forward to next November (2022) when it's much more local," Woodall-Vogg. "And Milwaukee's absentee results will likely come in the middle of the night again because our legislature hasn't done anything to change our laws."
Still, what she saw in 2020 strengthened her resolve to stay in her position. Following the election, the Trump campaign requested recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties, the two largest and most Democratic counties in Wisconsin, and asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to discard tens of thousands of ballots. The recount affirmed Mr. Biden's win and the legal challenge was unsuccessful.
"I think what motivates me is, last year it just was eye-opening to watch a recount occur only in the two most Democratic countries in our state and then to have those votes be taken to court and be challenged," Woodall-Vogg said. "How we conduct early voting in Wisconsin or how we correct witness addresses and cure ballots, it's a statewide standard, but only votes in my city and Dane County were being challenged."
"Just to see it being challenged so out in the open, I guess I feel an obligation to protect the city of Milwaukee voters' ballots and protect their right to vote," she added.
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