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Two states' top election officials talk about threats arising from election denialism — on "The Takeout"

As the Supreme Court weighs whether Colorado can bar former President Donald Trump from its primary, two secretaries of state, one Republican and one Democrat, agree that election denialism poses a threat to local officials but clash on whether Trump must be convicted of a criminal offense to be excluded from the ballot.

"He hasn't been tried, and so I don't want the arbitrary authority as a secretary of saying, 'Well, I think you did so, therefore I can take you off the ballot,'" Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, said in a conversation recorded on Feb. 6, two days before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Trump's 14th Amendment case. Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, disagreed, asserting that the law does not require Trump to be found guilty of insurrection to disqualify him from holding office. 

Both secretaries, who were in Washington, D.C., to attend a conference, joined CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on this week's episode of "The Takeout" to discuss the heightened pressures on local election officials in both of their home states. While Fontes maintains that elections in Arizona remain fair and reliable, he acknowledged that general discontent has escalated because of the spread of misinformation, resulting in conspiracy theoriesand direct threats.

"We've got [a clerk] in Arizona who had two of her dogs poisoned as a means of intimidation," Fontes said, revealing that his family has also been threatened. He added, "They're destroying the faith that we have in one another as citizens, that civic faith that we should be able to share even across party lines."

Schwab said many senior election officials resigned after the pandemic, leaving his state with a less experienced workforce running elections. There's been a spike in threats in Kansas, too, he said, telling the story of   one county clerk who received a phone call at her office from someone claiming to be parked outside her elderly parents' home. "But it's a county of 5,000 people," he said. "I mean, who's going to do a presidential fraud election in a county of 5,000?"

Fontes criticized the Department of Justice for an apparent lack of urgency in investigating and prosecuting individuals involved in harassing election officials. "I consider that to be domestic terrorism," he said. "I mean, the definition of terrorism is the threat or use of violence against someone to reach a political end. And when you're threatening election officials, it's a political end."

Both secretaries agreed that there's money to be made in election denialism. "This has become an industry," Schwab said. He mentioned Douglas Frank, a prominent election conspiracy theorist: "I know people that give Dr. Frank $200 a month to help his cause. I'm like — but he's been disproven."

He observed that profiting from election denial goes back to the 2000 Bush v. Gore election but noted that in that case, election lawyers were making all the money. Today's denialists are notably different, he said. "Now it's not the attorneys," Schwab said. "Now, it's people who can get clicks on YouTube and make money by spreading similar conspiracies that in a lawsuit never would get to court. But I don't have to go to court, I just need public opinion to cut me a check."

Fontes maintains that election officials are now entering the field "with eyes wide open" and a clear understanding of the heightened pressures in the current environment. "They are dedicated to making sure that democracy works," he asserted. "Not just for Arizona, but for the rest of the country."

Listen to this show on ART19

Executive producer: Arden Farhi

Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson

CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin 
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