On Tuesday, during a House select committee hearing about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, poll workers and election officials told harrowing stories about rampant threats, intimidation and violence they faced from Donald Trump’s supporters following his loss in the 2020 presidential election.
“Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States targeting you?” Ruby Freeman, a former poll worker from Fulton County, Ga., told the panel in recorded testimony. In his January 2021 call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Trump baselessly accused Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, both election workers in Georgia, of promoting voter fraud.
“The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one,” Freeman said.
Moss testified Tuesday that she quit her job in election administration after a decade of service, following the Trump camp’s baseless smear campaign claiming she had ballot-stuffed for Joe Biden. “It has turned my life upside down,” she said. “I don’t want anyone knowing my name.”
Moss described death threats against herself and her mother. Her information was doxxed, and she received messages “saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.’”
Other election officials described in-person death threats from an armed militia member, a break-in at a relative’s house tied to the harassment campaigns, and orchestrated protests and harassment led by high-profile Trump supporters.
“There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” Freeman told the panel.
Election workers are mostly civil servants, minor officials and volunteers, and virtually all of them are strangers to the spotlight and unfamiliar with notoriety. But the attention that Trump’s “Stop the Steal” effort focused on workers like Freeman and Moss has been relentless and ugly, said Shauna Dillavou, a security expert and founder of Brightlines, an anti-doxxing service for elections workers. And, she said, it’s getting worse.
“People would come and wait for them to get out of their precinct and get in their cars,” she said. “They’d follow them. They’d leave notes on cars. They’d copy down license plate numbers. They would sit outside and threaten people.”
At the same time, these poll workers and officials face remarkable levels of abuse, many of their positions are being targeted by Trump-supporting activists like Steve Bannon, the far-right ideologue and former Trump adviser, and Cleta Mitchell, one of Trump’s top legal aides in his effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
People doxxed them and threatened their children. And they’re like, ‘I’m showing up to do a job. I’m not trying to make a statement, I’m not trying to take a stand. I’m just a person doing a job.’Shana Dillavou, Brightlines
Bannon has been promoting a precinct-level strategy to take over U.S. election administration by party loyalists assuming the roles of the very people targeted by right-wing harassment — from secretary of state down to municipal clerk roles. Some of these positions are partisan, but many are decidedly not. Mitchell leads the Election Integrity Network, an apparatus to train right-wing activists in election administration issues.
“We’re going to take back our elections,” Mitchell said in April.
To better understand the growing threats posed to election workers — and the growing threat to democracy — Grid’s Anya van Wagtendonk spoke with Dillavou, a national security veteran whose background includes providing informational security for people targeted by drug cartels in Mexico and repressive governments in the former Soviet Union and China.
Dillavou put it bluntly: When election administration is undermined, the integrity of U.S. elections is at risk.
“The trust will disintegrate. I don’t think folks would want to vote. What’s the point?” she said. “And in a country with more guns and people, why not just pick up a gun? Why not just be forceful?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What kind of threats have you seen election workers face, and who is targeted? Is it low-level poll workers, county election officials, state-level election administrators?
Shauna Dillavou: What I can tell you is, no one was untouched. The folks in states where the temperature was hotter, it hit more levels. And in that mix, of course, were some elected officials who were administering elections or who were making decisions about how to audit or whether to audit. So it wasn’t just elections officials. It spread out past that.
For the folks at the lower levels, it’s very local concerns and very physical. They’d be worried about being tailed. Or they’d get threats from people who knew them or their children.
Election workers are fiercely nonpartisan. They are about the election and not about a party and not about an issue. They cannot be. They pride themselves, in the way a journalist would. [They have] an ethical code.
I think about people who work in public service jobs and how little they’re paid, the conditions they have to work in, the amount of work they have to do, the stupid bureaucratic crap that they have to deal with — all while being on a Windows 95 machine in an office that probably doesn’t have a window that opens. They’re toiling away. They’re not doing that because they ever were interested in being a big name.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the secretary of state in New Mexico, was on a hit list, the “Enemies of the People” list [from Iran]. Another nation was interested in harming her. That was the case for some of those folks.
It shouldn’t surprise you at all that the biggest cases, the biggest names and the most public [examples], were when women held important linchpin positions. They received a not-commensurate level of harassment [and] threats of violence.
Even in the case of Brad Raffensperger — the only male name that I can think of who was a high-ranking person who was dealing with harassment — it was really his wife who was being harassed. And what we saw, more often than not, is that in the cases of women who were being targeted, the harassment and threats spread out to their children and their partners, parents, family members.
G: What are you anticipating building up to the 2022 midterms? Are there aspects of the climate right now that are different from 2020?
SD: The adversaries are far more sophisticated. They’ve learned a lot in the last two years. I see a greater need for what we’re doing. Because I think the folks who will attack the fabric of our elections will go after individual people. They’ve learned that that’s effective. I think the model is pretty well worn. They’ve learned about these esoteric government websites that you can go to, to get key information about people.
My concern is that the vitriol seems to have turned up, and so has the level of expertise.
The tactics are the same as what we saw during Gamergate. What they’ll do is single them out; almost militaristically organize online, in different fora; and then carry out campaigns of fear using the same messages and the same tools and the same tactics. We’re seeing evolutions of it.
I think it’ll be a tough summer across America. Economic issues aren’t going anywhere. And that always makes things harder and folks more anxious, for good reason. Inflation, and folks being overworked and burned out post pandemic — or “post” pandemic. I think this is a confluence of factors that can be a powder keg.
G: How organized are those online mobs? Is it disparate people from the forums, or is it coming from some kind of organization?
SD: It’s both. It’s individuals who will make that threatening phone call. And it’s organizations who put together the information or who put together the target list or the “enemies of” list. Who maybe do a media hit piece or have a representative on “Tucker Carlson [Tonight]” or will put something out that gets tweeted and retweeted.
It can go two ways. It can happen where there’s a really public bang, and then you’ll see it sort of trickle down into the alt-net. So it’ll go through your typical online channels, and then it’ll go into the seedier places of the internet.
Or it can happen the other way, where folks get together and complain about a person and hate on a person, and then they’re like, “We should dox her, we should do this, we should do this.” That can bubble up, particularly if there’s an outside public thing that’s happening as well. It’ll turn the heat up on whatever is bubbling on the alt-net.
G: If I’m not an election official, why should I care about this targeted harassment?
SD: What makes the harassment of election officials so significant is that it demonstrates a turning point. Before, if you were a public figure, if you intentionally put yourself out there, you could expect a little bit of this. A journalist who’s also a woman or trans person or person of color, you would know that you would get a little of this — maybe in a way that your white male colleagues wouldn’t understand, but you would know, and you would expect it.
But these are selfless civil servants toiling away in the background, and they were targeted. Their names were found. People doxed them and threatened their children. And they’re like, “I’m showing up to do a job. I’m not trying to make a statement, I’m not trying to take a stand. I’m just a person doing a job. Your team lost, you don’t like it, and so you’re gonna kill the messenger.”
That’s very different from what we’ve seen before.
In the past, I would talk to folks who were dealing with online misogyny, and they would share these stories about going to the police and the police telling them, “Well, just get offline” — which is like a joke. There is no getting offline. My dad’s never had a social media account, but I guarantee you that all of his personally identifiable information is available.
So that feels like it could happen to anybody at any point in time. Who’s next? Who’s going to be disliked next? Because now you have this beast that needs to be fed, right? This outrage machine that needs to have another name or another community or another cause. And inside of that you can single out individual people to target and that will make you feel good. Like you’re doing something.
G: What are the stakes of this for our electoral system or democratic process if civil servants are subjected to that level of harassment or targeting?
SD: How many folks do you think are gonna want to do it? There’s thousands of different voting jurisdictions in the country. What happens when we can’t hire anyone for those roles?
You lose a lot of institutional knowledge. Probably then, the chances that something will go wrong are increased — that something doesn’t get counted, or some votes do get lost, or something happens, because we don’t have clear accountability trails in any of these places.
I can’t tell you if this happens quickly or if it happens over a couple of cycles. But I would imagine for the population that votes and thinks that the system is fair, that we start to understand what some folks in this country — most likely folks of color — have understood for generations, which is that it’s not fair. You have to suspect that someone’s trying to disenfranchise your vote. So then, why make the effort to stand online and do it, if you don’t have any faith that it’s going to be counted? Then what happens? Then who gets into office?
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.