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Top election officials in a Texas county quit after threats stemming from 2020

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Running an election in 2022 is hard. There's all the logistics that go into making early voting, mail voting and Election Day voting go smoothly. And on top of that, election officials have been dealing with a storm of harassment and death threats following the lies told about the 2020 election being stolen. Now, some of these officials say they're done. For example, in Texas, all the top election officials in one county quit last week. NPR's Miles Parks covers voting, and he's with us now. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha. Good morning.

RASCOE: So tell us more about what happened in Gillespie County, Texas. This is a small conservative county west of Austin.

PARKS: Yeah, so this is really the case of Gillespie's election administrator, Anissa Herrera, simply not being able to do this job any longer. The nonprofit elections news site Votebeat acquired her resignation letter. And in it, Herrera notes how much the elections landscape has changed since 2020, specifically, this increase in threats and harassment and misinformation. She also mentioned new restrictive voting legislation that was passed in Texas that gave election observers and poll watchers a lot more latitude to scrutinize the work of these sorts of local election officials. Herrera says, quote, "the life commitment I have given to this job is not sustainable. In light of these changes and for my health and my well-being, I'm resigning."

RASCOE: Wow. So what do we know about the landscape for election officials nationwide as we get closer to the midterms?

PARKS: Yeah, I mean, the threats that we've been talking about consistently over the last two years have not stopped. The Department of Justice said recently that they've reviewed more than a thousand threats against voting officials just this year, which I should note is a vast undercount of the threats that local officials are facing, since we know they don't report every email and phone call that they get. In fact, a man was charged this month for leaving a voicemail for an Arizona election official saying - and I'm paraphrasing here because this message contained a lot of profanity - you need to do your job right because other people from other states are watching you. And if you give us any more trouble, you'll never make it to another board meeting. So this pressure really cannot be overstated. I talked about this with Jennifer Morrell, who's a former local election official in Utah, and she's now an elections consultant.

JENNIFER MORRELL: The office still has retained its veteran election administrators, which - we know they continue to leave. There's some serious, like, burnout happening. And everybody's worried about making a mistake, even just, like, a harmless, innocent mistake and sort of continuing to fuel the election conspiracy stuff.

RASCOE: And what does that mean if more election officials just say they can't take it anymore, that it isn't worth it?

PARKS: Well, then the natural next question is, who's going to replace them? I mean, that is the concern here. Are the next round of election officials - are these people who are doing this job because they care about fair and efficient elections, or are they doing it specifically to give one side an advantage over the other? The other problem, which is a little less nefarious but just as important, is that you're losing all of this institutional knowledge. Inexperienced election officials will just make more mistakes. They just will, which to Morrell's point, can end up fueling conspiracies and hurting election confidence, as well.

RASCOE: So how do you stop this?

PARKS: So there's a couple of angles here. One is the law enforcement angle - this new Department of Justice elections task force has brought charges against at least six people for making threats against voting officials. There's the legislative angle - a number of states have passed laws that increase the penalties for making these sorts of threats. But when I talk to democracy experts, they really say this comes down to the candidates. Candidates have the loudest megaphone as we look ahead towards midterms. And if they keep spinning up their supporters with conspiracies, it will motivate a portion of their supporters to pressure local election officials.

RASCOE: NPR's Miles Parks, thank you so much.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.