‘Every noise makes you nervous’: US election workers confront threats and abuse with resilience training

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On a quiet day, alone at home with the windows open in her home in Michigan, Tina Barton thought she heard a voice say: “Hello.”

Her heart began to beat rapidly, because she thought that an uninvited person might be outside her country house. I closed the windows. She called her husband and asked him to check the security cameras. Didn’t see anyone.

She was in a state of “absolute panic.” When Barton was an elections clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, in 2020, she faced death threats and harassment for doing her job. One of the men threatened to “kill” her. For a while, she didn’t know who the man was threatening her. It could have been anyone. He could have been the one to come to her house one day.

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The incident at her home came a year after she left her job, but two years before she identified the man Accused. That day, her daughter finally arrived home and told Barton she was feeling afraid in the garage. It wasn’t a local elections official who was upset by the noise, but rather the neighbor’s barn cat, stuck in the garage, bellowing, sounding like a human voice.

“We laugh about it now,” Barton said. “But I realized at that moment that something was happening in my mind that was not normal for me.”

Barton, now a senior elections expert at the Elections Group, tells this story to rooms of election officials, many of whom experienced the same harassment and threats she did when Donald Trump and his allies led a campaign to cast doubt on the election results and overturn them. Election 2020. It’s part of the resiliency training it’s hosting at caucuses across the country, as well as virtually, to address the ongoing harassment public employees face.

It is also possible for election workers in the public to deal with hypervigilance, fear, and post-traumatic stress from their work. They may feel isolated or overreact. Barton’s story, Let them know they’re not alone, she said.

“For them to feel like they can be vulnerable and vulnerable and talk about these things and open up about it, I have to expose that to them first,” she said.

Election threats, often based on misinformation or distortion of electoral processes, did not end in 2020. They have now become a daily problem for US election officials, and bring with them the potential to spiral into violence. Even without their physical appearance, they cause stress, anxiety, and chaos for election offices and their workers.

These harassing and threatening messages are more likely to target women and people of color, according to Bridging the Divides Initiative at Princeton University, which studies political violence. They are most common in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona. Most do not lead to criminal charges, although a Justice Department unit that focuses on election threats has done so More than ten people were charged Since 2021.

The problem is a “persistently high baseline,” Polls of election officials From CivicPulse found. In any quarter of the world, “nearly half of officials were insulted, a third were harassed, and nearly one in five were threatened.” Threats that turn physical, although rare, create anxiety and fear for these officials — one in five female officials “feels concerned about attacks on them or their families,” according to CivicPulse.

A wave of election officials have resigned from their jobs, often leaving less experienced people in charge of voting. There are no nationwide data on departures, but there is a study of 11 states in the American West By the first issue It showed that more than 160 top local election officials have left their positions since the 2020 election, leaving half of the 76 million Americans living in those states with a new top election official.

For those who remain, the threats will not go away or improve. Election officials are looking for a way to empathize and find ways to manage ongoing harassment in their daily work lives.

Bill Gates, a Maricopa County official in Arizona who has been the target of harassment by fellow Republicans for years, said: In the Washington Post story He sought treatment and dealt with post-traumatic stress in the aftermath. Maricopa County election clerks have dealt with Constant harassment Since 2020.

Groups focused on election issues have added mental health resources. The Carter Center was established by A Wellbeing Resource Guide For election officials. “I think what’s particularly helpful is being able to talk to people about this,” said David Carroll, director of the center’s Democracy Program.

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After the cat’s wake-up call in 2021, Barton said she called Harold Love, a longtime friend and retired Michigan State Police captain who now works as a consultant. He told her that her reaction was “a very normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”

“A lot of things are based on fear — fear of something happening, fear of carrying out a threat that I’m getting,” said Love, who helped Barton with the necessary resources. “If you’ve heard some of the horrific things that people have been exposed to, just the thought of someone… By doing so, it may put a person into a state of hypervigilance.” Training. “In other words, every noise makes you nervous.”

She tells election officials in resilience training the same thing: You are not abnormal. you are not alone. The fear and stress you feel makes sense given the circumstances you are experiencing.

“Sometimes I have to repeat his statement back to me when I feel anxious, which is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” she said. “It’s abnormal for someone to say they want to cut your throat in public. It’s abnormal for someone to say they want to kill you. Those things are abnormal. I’m not abnormal.”

Love said the injury doesn’t need to be physical to have a lasting impact. The body attempts to protect itself through hypervigilance and withdrawal from activities that may cause anxiety or anxiety. There’s also a tendency for people to downplay the impact of threats on them or not talk about it, but “shock is shock,” Love says.

These sessions help officials reflect on the burden they’ve carried for years, putting their heads down to do the important work of elections despite the noise. They may not be aware of the ways harassment affects their daily lives. Maybe they’ve lost sight of why they’re still doing the job. Parton likens it to carrying her granddaughter on any given day: Her weight doesn’t change, but as time goes on, it becomes more difficult to carry.

It’s getting back-breaking. It’s getting exhausting. It makes you exhausted in a lot of areas. And so just reminding them of that is why you feel that way, that’s why you’re in this place. “It’s okay to lose weight,” she said.

The exercises explain in detail what stress, trauma and burnout can look like. She talks about ways to manage them: by changing your mindset, taking breaks, breathing deeply, preparing for stressful times in advance, talking to others, finding an accountability partner, and going to therapy.

Mental health tools can help individuals manage the daily stresses of their increasingly demanding jobs, but they work to combat a systemic problem that is often harder to solve — and often exacerbated by political leaders throwing more vitriol their way.

Threatening and harassing messages often do not lead to criminal charges because prosecutors consider whether they will be able to convict someone against free speech rights. Most messages are unactionable, even if to a layman they appear to clearly call for violence or death. The people leaving messages are often anonymous as well, creating fear that the person threatening you could be anyone.

The Department of Justice created an Election Threats Task Force in 2021 and has so far brought charges against 15 people, 11 of whom have been convicted. But some people who work on elections say the department has not been aggressive enough, despite Attorney General Merrick Garland’s pledge to prosecute over election threats.

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, He told Rolling Stone This month he’s frustrated with the administration and Garland for being “too cautious.”

This should be treated like an emergency

Adrian Fontes, Arizona Secretary of State

“I have a lot of respect for the Attorney General, but he is not aggressive enough about this threat, which puts our democracy at risk, and he and the Department are not devoting enough resources to it. “This must be treated as an emergency.”

Local officials became a symbol of people upset over Trump’s loss who were looking for someone to blame, and right-wing politicians and media stoked their fears that the election was stolen. Threats often do not come from the community itself, but from people from another country who read a post online.

When local residents cast ballots, election officials are more accessible to an angry citizen than to a congressman, senator, or president. They can walk into City Hall or a clerk’s office and speak directly to someone they may know from across the city and give them a piece of their thoughts. Barton helps election workers understand that these angry people do not represent their entire community, but rather vocal critics.

She tells them: “Don’t lose sight of the work you’re doing.” “Give yourself grace and realize that it is a very small minority that are given a megaphone at this moment.”

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She knows what election officials go through because she was one of them. She knows why they stay: they have a passion for service, they are patriots, and they care about their communities.

Barton always brings the conversation back to the “why,” which many of them have lost in the chaos of this political moment. I asked the administrators to write three “whys” on a note card. It can range from the need for salary and insurance to a deep interest in public service. These cards serve as a physical reminder for them to pull through the tough times and remember why they keep going.

She asked attendees to come up to her afterwards and say they needed someone to open up this conversation, to feel understood. An election official came up to her at a conference, opened his wallet, and took out his card that he had written in a previous session. “He said, ‘I’m going to carry this with me wherever I go,'” Barton said.

Barton cannot go back to how she was before her life was threatened; You will never be the same person again. Other election workers can’t either. But she said they can find ways to console, cope and try to renew their passion.

When they come out of her resilience training, she wants them to feel “they’ve been heard, they’ve been understood.”

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