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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Local election workers fear threats to safety as November nears

    Spencer Wood, a regional election security adviser with the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, addresses election workers, staff and law enforcement April 10, 2024, at a Committee of Safe and Secure Elections conference in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping them prepare for what could lie ahead. Wood told the attendees they were not facing the threats alone and praised them as the “frontline defenders” of the nation’s elections. (AP Photo/John L. Russell)

    TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The group gathered inside the conference room, mostly women, fell silent as the audio recording began to play.

    The male voice, clearly agitated, railed against what he thought had been fraud that cost former President Donald Trump reelection four years ago.

    “You’re gonna pay for it,” said the man, filling his message with expletives and suggesting his target’s throat be slashed with a knife. “We will … take you out. Your family, your life."

    The call had been directed at one of their own, a city clerk who had overseen elections in 2020 in her suburban Detroit community. The former clerk, Tina Barton, played the recording of the call she had received to an audience that included several dozen local election clerks and a few law enforcement officials who had gathered recently inside an office building conference room in northern Michigan.

    “I want you to understand this voicemail is the same type of thing that we’re seeing across the country, and it can find you anywhere you are — small community, large community, Michigan, Arizona. It can find you,” said Barton, who was overseeing elections in Rochester Hills when she received the voicemail a week after the 2020 presidential election.

    The recent gathering in Traverse City, a picturesque community on the shores of Lake Michigan in a county that has twice voted for Trump, was part of a national effort to train local election workers on how they can respond to threats and work with law enforcement to counter them.

    As the nation barrels toward another highly charged presidential election, the threats to election offices that have been an alarming consequence of Trump's false claims about his 2020 loss loom as a perilous wildcard for the thousands of local government workers who will oversee the indispensable infrastructure of the nation’s democracy this fall. The constant threats and harassment have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country.

    Barton left her job in Rochester Hills shortly after the 2020 election and later became part of the newly formed Committee for Safe and Secure Elections. Since joining, she has given nearly 100 presentations throughout the country.

    Earlier this month, The Associated Press was granted rare access inside the committee’s training session in Traverse City and allowed to observe the scenarios election workers are likely to face this year and the discussions about how they and law enforcement can prepare for them.

    “None of these scenarios are sensational. They are all things that have already happened in some way, shape or form across the country,” Barton tells the group. “To say, ‘Oh, that could never happen.’ These things are already happening.”

    Barton’s partner in the training is Justin Smith, the former sheriff in Larimer County, Colo., who signed up after retiring last year and hearing directly from local election officials about the onslaught of threats they have faced since 2020.

    During the training, Smith often speaks directly to the police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the room, explaining the role they play in elections and how the environment has changed since 2020. In past years, election officials were likely to deal with issues on their own, such as protesters or unruly citizens looking to promote their candidates at polling places.

    “It’s not that simple anymore,” Smith tells the group. “We need to be at the table and be part of the solution.”

    To election officials, he explains how law enforcement has historically sought to keep its distance from anything to do with elections, mindful of First Amendment concerns and not wanting to interfere with anyone’s right to vote.

    Barton guides the election officials through various scenarios and encourages them to think through their responses, when it makes sense to alert law enforcement and when to consider releasing information to the public.

    “I know there’s been some, maybe disgruntlement across the country from some election officials that feel that they haven’t gotten the response from law enforcement that they thought law enforcement should give,” Barton tells the election officials. “So these conversations help us understand what they can actually do in those scenarios and what they can’t do.”

    She said election offices might deal with everything from threatening emails and phone calls to an AI-generated robocall sent to poll workers telling them to stay home on Election Day. One of the scenarios Barton presents to the group mirrors events that unfolded in the days immediately after elections last fall, when local election offices in a handful of states received letters in the mail that contained fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid.

    Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, whose office helped sponsor and coordinate the Traverse City training, said it’s imperative for law enforcement and election officials to work together to ensure a smooth election in November.

    Benson said her office has been providing grants to election offices to help them boost security. The federal government also is engaged in the effort. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will assess the physical security of local election offices and has written guidance for workers on how to de-escalate tense situations.

    Michael D. Shea, the sheriff in Grand Traverse County, said he was surprised at how vulnerable election officials can be because of the requirements associated with their job. He said it was understandable to have some concerns about elections, particularly with the use of technology in parts of the voting process, but said he trusted experts and his local election officials.

    “The goal is a safe, secure, fair election,” said Shea, who attended the training. “And we intend to make that happen.”

    ___

    Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., and Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.

    ___

    The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

    Educational materials provided by the Committee of Safe and Secure Elections are pictured at a conference with local election and law enforcement officials Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping them prepare for what could lie ahead and making sure they are connected to local law enforcement. (AP Photo/John L. Russell)
    Tina Barton, a former election clerk, speaks at a conference with local election and law enforcement officials held by the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping them prepare for what could lie ahead. Barton, who was overseeing elections in Rochester Hills, Mich., spoke about receiving a threatening voicemail a week after the 2020 presidential election. (AP Photo/John L. Russell)
    Educational materials provided by the Committee of Safe and Secure Elections are pictured at a conference with local election and law enforcement officials Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping them prepare for what could lie ahead and making sure they are connected to local law enforcement. (AP Photo/John L. Russell)

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