A Movement to Help Embattled and Stressed Election Workers
Under increased scrutiny and even attack, election workers are leaving their jobs in record numbers. For those who stay, resources are being offered to help preserve their mental wellness.
For election officials, cries that “democracy is at risk” cut deep. Nothing is more essential to preserving democracy than elections. They are dedicated to this work and have never been better at it than they are today. But many are finding that the suspicion and hostility enveloping their profession is too much to bear.
In an April 2023 survey of local election officials by the Brennan Center, 7 in 10 said threats against them have increased. Almost half were concerned about the safety of their staff and colleagues in future elections. One in 3 had been threatened or harassed themselves.
Avery Davis-Roberts, associate director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program, has been traveling the country to talk about this climate of stress and what can be done about it. “I cannot remember a single event that I've been to where someone has not come up to me and burst into tears about what is happening with them,” she says.
Election workers are leaving their jobs to find relief. Many believed they would have a chance to rejuvenate after making it through the dual perils of COVID-19 and conspiracy theories in the 2020 cycle. Instead, they’ve had a nonstop need to defend themselves.
“A lot of them are looking at 2024 and thinking, ‘I'm still kind of a mess from the last three years,’” says Tina Barton, who ran elections as city clerk for Rochester Hills, Mich., for nearly a decade. “We’re anticipating an extremely volatile election cycle, and for many it seems like a really high mountain to climb.”
Barton now serves as senior election expert for The Elections Group and on the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE). She’s working with others to reduce the toll of stress on election departments and workers by providing resources to foster mental wellness and resilience.
A Big Problem May Be Even Bigger
New research by the nonprofit Issue One suggests that the turnover rate among local election officials may be higher than previously estimated. In March 2022, the Brennan Center reported that 1 in 5 election officials might quit before 2024.
Issue One looked at departures in 11 states in the western U.S. and found that 160 chief election officials had left their jobs since November 2020, 40 percent of the chief election officials in the region. As the report puts it, “half of the 76 million Americans who live in the western United States have a new chief local election official since the 2020 presidential election.”
One reason for the focus on Western states is that elections in the region are typically administered by a single county official, says Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One and lead author of the report. “One of the things that was surprising is that the election official exodus is happening everywhere, in counties in Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, across the board.”
Issue One estimates that these departures encompass 1,800 years of combined experience. “When folks walk out the door, they're taking with them an incredible amount of institutional knowledge,” Beckel says.
Threats and hostility directed at election officials have been widely reported. But it’s only recently that attention has gone to their impact on the mental well-being of election officials, Barton says.
“Unless we want to continue to see this mass exodus of election administrators, we need to recognize that this is a problem, and we need to look at how we can help them.”
Barton knows the problem from the inside out. She received a stream of death threats during her term in Rochester Hills after a false claim that votes had been miscounted.
Recognizing Stress and Trauma
The Carter Center has done work around elections for the past four decades, Davis-Roberts says, but most of that work has been international. After the 2020 election, the center’s board decided that American elections needed its support.
As this work progressed, Davis-Roberts heard stories from election officials about the personal toll of the threats, harassment and abuse they experienced. One of the Carter Center’s other priorities is mental health, and Davis-Roberts saw an opportunity to combine the skill sets.
In 2022, the Carter Center published Taking Care of Yourself to Serve Others: A Well-being Resource Guide for Election Officials. Designed to help readers recognize the signs and impacts of trauma and direct them to sources of mental wellness support, it also provides links to physical safety and security toolkits, including a “dox yourself” guide.
Harold Love, a retired Michigan State police captain and CSSE member who is also a licensed professional counselor, has been working with both The Elections Group and the Carter Center to develop webinars and presentations. He’s experienced the hurt that can come when the public turns against you.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center, he says, police “were heroes for a bit” after the world saw them running into danger to save lives. But that impression of public safety as a noble profession has been eclipsed by suspicion and scrutiny resulting from high-profile cases of mistreatment.
Election officials have also been brought into the spotlight, but only in a negative way, Love says. “That has a huge effect on the psyche of a person.”
Even so, people often fail to recognize stress for what it is. Barton recalls being at a CSSE tabletop exercise and asking who in the large crowd had been threatened or harassed. One person raised their hand. “I found that hard to believe,” she says.
She then asked how many had been told things such as “you better watch out because I’m onto you,” “I think there’s fraud going on here” or “I’m going to be watching you in the parking lot and I know where you live.” This time, everyone in the room raised their hand.
Getting Help, Building Resilience
Barton, Love and Davis-Roberts have collaborated on webinars and conference presentations. Barton and The Elections Group have developed a class on building resilience in an elections team and have presented it at conferences and to election offices in states. These educational efforts don’t encompass treatment but do include information about where it can be found.
CSSE was formed to bring the worlds of election administration and law enforcement together, and this work has a big role in easing stress. Some states are enacting criminal penalties for threatening election officials, and CSSE is creating state-by-state handbooks for law enforcement that highlight criminal codes relating to election interference.
More can be done to prevent "doxing" of election officials, the public disclosure of private information such as their home addresses and phone numbers. (The Carter Center guide includes a link to a "dox yourself" tutorial that individual election officials can use to find their personal information on the Internet and remove it.)
The fact that a substantial number of administrators will be working their first presidential is another stress factor, one that can be addressed by adequate support and funding to train them. “There will be a lot of eyes watching for even the most mundane administrative mistakes,” says Beckel.
There should be no stigma attached to admitting you’re not doing well, Love says. “We weren't talking about mental wellness when we started CSSE, but now this is a big part of what's going on and what we are trying to tackle.”
Davis-Roberts is urging election workers to build mental well-being and resilience pre-emptively. “Then, if you find yourself in a circumstance that is incredibly mentally and emotionally taxing you have a reserve, and tools and habits you can rely on without thinking about them.”