SOS for Democracy

Election clerks facing increasing threats, security risks and a flood of FOIA requests

It’s been almost two years since the 2020 election, but election clerks in Michigan say they are still dealing with the fallout from “The Big Lie” and its believers

LANSING, MICH. — Tina Barton was shocked the first time she received a death threat over the phone a few days following the 2020 election.

As the city clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Barton was responsible for ensuring the election there ran smoothly and securely, a job she did well. But that didn’t stop conspiracy theorists—emboldened by former President Donald Trump’s claims that the election had been stolen from him — from calling Barton and making death threats for what they falsely believed was her role in rigging the election.

“To do all the things that you’re supposed to do, only to have people say they’re going to slice your throat in public, or that you should be hanged for treason, or that you should watch your back because when you least expect it, they’re coming for you and your family, it shakes you,” Barton, a Republican, said. 

Soon after, Barton and her husband, a deputy in the Oakland County Sheriff’s office, sat their children down and played them the voicemails. They told them not to post on social media about where they were going or what they were doing. The couple upgraded their home security system. 

Barton’s story is not unique. In the nearly two years since Joe Biden won the state en route to the White House, election clerks in Michigan and across the country have faced an onslaught of threats and Freedom of Information Act requests from Republicans who still believe the 2020 election was stolen.

According to a recent survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, one in six election officials has experienced threats because of their jobs, and 77 percent say that they feel these threats have increased in recent years. 

Derek Tisler, an expert at the Brennan Center who worked on the survey, said most of the threats are coming from “members of the public who have been activated by conspiracy theories,” and “political leaders driven by the same idea that election officials should use their powers to achieve political aims.”

Advocating for more resources  

“I miss the time when it was unacceptable to make such threats and to harass people in such a manner,” said Barb Byrum, county clerk in Ingham County, home to the state capital of Lansing. “A lot of this is the result of people seeing what our leader was doing, and how he was acting, and they have been emboldened to act the same without any real accountability.”

Byrum said security is always on her mind—something she didn’t think about before 2020. Byrum and her colleagues have advocated for more resources dedicated specifically to ensuring election workers feel safe at their jobs.

In February, election clerks across the state published an open letter to legislators asking for “resources and policies to ensure a smooth 2022 election cycle.” 

The following month, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson granted local and county clerks $8 million to buy new locks and cameras and other security-related improvements before the midterms. 

Benson’s office also recently proposed dedicating $100 million annually to bolster security around election administration and increasing the penalty for anyone who threatens, harasses or doxes election workers. Benson said her office has also set up meetings connecting election clerks with law enforcement to establish protocols and safety procedures on Election Day.

“The bottom line to me is that polling places should be a sanctuary of peace on Election Day, a place where you’re proud and excited to go, not a place where you feel threatened or where threats may emerge,” Benson said. 

Recruitment efforts from the top down 

Benson has faced her own share of threats and intimidation during her time as the state’s chief election officer. 

In May, news broke that while in office, Trump suggested she be tried for treason and executed because of her unwillingness to overturn election results in the state.

“Those who run our elections … have been enduring threats and harassment from folks at every level, including the former president of the United States, simply for doing their jobs,” Benson said. “Right now, those who run free and fair elections are under such threats and enduring so many challenges that we risk losing the strongest heroes in our democracy.”

Across the country, the lingering impact of the 2020 election is causing election workers to leave their posts in record numbers, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In Michigan, the Republican party has led a concerted effort to enlist thousands of election deniers to fill those open posts and work as election inspectors in the coming midterm elections.

Mary Clark, Delta Township clerk and president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said that new applicants to serve as election workers throughout the state are overwhelmingly from election-denying Republicans – likely at the direction of the Republican National Committee.

“I’d say it’s five to one,” Clark said of the ratio between Republican and Democratic applicants. “It will be interesting how it unfolds. …. Obviously they think it’s to their advantage that they’re going to have a different set of eyes.”

In Plainfield Charter Township, just outside of Grand Rapids, deputy clerk Tina Porzondek said she welcomes the new volunteers, regardless of their preconceived notions or motivations. The more people who are trained and educated about the process of election administration, the more those people will understand that the process in Michigan is secure, Porzondek said.

“If you have any doubt about the security of elections, the checks and balances that we have in place, I encourage you to get trained as an election inspector and work in election administration,” said Porzondek, who also serves as the director of membership at the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. “See for yourself.”

The lingering effects of 2020 

In addition to threat, security concerns and managing the influx of new volunteers, clerks nationwide have been flooded with FOIA requests from conspiracy theorists hoping to find confirmation for their false claims of election fraud.

“The flood of FOIA requests from election deniers is absolutely something we are hearing about all across the country, and especially in the swing states that have most been the subject of election conspiracies.” Tisler said. 

In Ingham County, Byrum said responding to the number of FOIA requests related to the 2020 election is costly and has zero chance of changing election results. 

“They want copies of poll books and tabular tapes and all of that,” Byrum said.  “Yes, we respect FOIA, but it’s going to cost arguably thousands of dollars. We’re going to have to open up bags, we’re going to have to break seals…It’s going to be an undertaking.”

Two hours away in Ottawa County, clerk Justin Roebuck, who also has been threatened, said his staff is spending roughly a quarter of their time dealing with FOIA requests and other issues related to the 2020 election.

“Here we are, more than 450 days out from 2020 and we’re still spending that time, and that’s a resource,” said Roebuck, a Republican. “We have other elections to prepare for.”