They were horrified and shocked, but not surprised.
“I think in the back of our lot of our minds, this was like, an attack on our country was being invited,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said in an interview. “All of us have been saying this kind of misinformation is dangerous, and, unfortunately, this is the outcome of that kind of disinformation.”
Hobbs, a Democrat, was doxxed, threatened and harassed last year, enduring months of sustained abuse as a consequence of then-President Donald Trump’s stolen election lie. There were incidents early on that hinted at the potential for real-world action underneath a mostly verbal and virtual barrage: angry Trump supporters showing up at her house in mid-November, waving flags and shouting because they refused to believe that Joe Biden had won the state. What she experienced was not what any public servant signed up for, she said, and she’s still struggling to process what happened to her and to the country.
She is one of a dozen election officials and workers interviewed by NBC News who told a similar story: nightmarish months of trying to put aside violent threats, scared for themselves and their families, to do a vitally important job that had already been made more difficult by the pandemic. They spoke of lingering trauma, unheeded warnings and fears for the future amid what the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged is a growing threat from domestic extremists fueled at least in part by “the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives,” and possibly now emboldened even more by the Capitol attack.
Gabriel Sterling, a Republican and a top election official in Georgia, tried to raise the alarm in December about what he considered the potential for imminent violence. In a blistering news conference, he warned that “someone’s going to get shot” as a direct result of the misinformation and the lies about the results of the election being promoted by Trump and repeated and embraced by his supporters.
Sterling said watching the deadly rampage at the Capitol made him nauseous. He knew something like that could happen, but he didn’t think it actually would.
“You could see the logical train going from point A to point B, and if you didn’t, again, that’s irresponsible,” he told NBC News last week.
‘You just feel beat up’
Georgia election workers at all levels described some of the more alarming threats and abuse. They escalated the minute it became clear that Biden had flipped Georgia, a traditionally red state, blue for the first time in decades, state officials said.
Everyone from Sterling, the election systems manager, to hourly employees to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, was inundated. With the state’s two U.S. Senate races proceeding to runoff elections that wouldn’t take place until January — and would decide control of the Senate — workers were targetedlong past November.
“We were very much aware of our surroundings at all times,” said deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, a Republican.
The elections director in Fulton County, Georgia, Richard Barron, said his office was deluged with threats of violence and verbal abuse.
“There were people who were just nervous about being here every day,” said Barron,a county employee. “At one point there were a lot of threats about people who were going to gun us down in our office. Those calls were pretty disturbing to the staff.”
His office faced a bomb threat, and employees reported being followed and filmed. Poll workers attempting to pick up and deliver absentee ballots in drop boxes were blocked in by people in cars, Barron said.
His office shared 85 voicemails that Barron received in the six days leading up to the Senate runoffs on Jan. 5, nearly all of them angry and accusatory. At least one appeared to refer to the pro-Trump protests that were being planned for Washington the next day, though the caller seemingly mixed up the month. Extremists openly planned to “occupy” the Capitol with deadly force on Jan. 6, the day the Constitution sets aside for Congress to count and certify state electors in the presidential contest. Trump urged his supporters to gather for a rally before the count and told them to march on the Capitol afterward.
“You are clearly complicit to treason,” one man said in a voicemail left Sunday, Jan. 3. “We’ll be thinking about you on Jan. 6th in D.C.”
“What side are you gonna be on when the f—— shooting starts, brother?” said another male caller on the same day.
Barron said the mostly Black staff in Fulton County’s elections department faced frequent racism, with callers using the N-word.
“This is in your work setting, unfortunately. You take it on the chin,” said Barron’s assistant, Mariska Bodison, who is Black. “You just feel beat up. It was one election after another, it was one phone call after another.”
Fuchs said the state received many bomb threats at polling sites, while police investigated and warned off one individual who was threatening election workers in Gwinnett County. She also described how Raffensperger’s wife was texted graphic, sexualized threats, and said that one of Raffensperger’s relatives was the victim of a break-in.
“Somebody went into the house, turned on all the lights, and left — it was a very clear message that we can get to you, at any time,” Fuchs said. “That really scared the family.”
Efforts at transparency — like livestreams showing election workers doing their job, which other states spun up, as well — exposed lower-level employees to unrelenting abuse. A woman packing ballots up in their appropriate carriers ended up at the heart of a baseless conspiracy theory repeated by Trump. A contractor for Dominion Voting Systems, the election equipment manufacturer that became the target of wild conspiracy theories, was filmed by poll watchers and threatened with an animated noose online, triggering Sterling’s fierce warning about what he saw was the growing potential for violence.
“The reason they have a video of the guy is because the process is so transparent, we allow them to video him,” Sterling said. “We’re trying to be open and transparent, and they’re twisting it.”
‘We want to help the voters, and we couldn’t do any of that’
Officials across the country described similar experiences to their counterparts in Georgia.
“We had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to educate individuals that these things just weren’t true,” said George Christenson, the county clerk in Milwaukee, of the disinformation circulated on social media.
Janine Eveler, the elections director in Cobb County, said: “Something would be tweeted and we’d end up getting hundreds of calls. We want to help the voters – and we couldn’t do any of that because our phone lines were filled.”
And this all occurred amid what officials said was the most challenging election they’d ever worked. The pandemic upended the way America votes in the middle of a presidential primary cycle, and mere months before a presidential election that was expected to drive historic turnout.
Lisa Deeley, one of three commissioners in Philadelphia who run the city’s elections, said she used to feel like the job was a lot like being a wedding planner. But in 2020, she was accosted on the street and needed a police escort wherever she went.
And it’s taken a toll.
“I often feel unsafe as a result of the November election,” she said. “I’m looking over my shoulder, I’m looking in my rearview mirror, I’ve had nightmares. It’s definitely had a pronounced effect on me – and my family.”
Experts note that, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, the presidential election was remarkably successful — marked by high turnout and relatively short wait times at the polls. Government cybersecurity experts declared it “the most secure in American history.”
Officials said it was only possible thanks to sleepless nights and weekends spent working.
In Pennsylvania, the elections director in Monroe County, Sara May-Silfee, said she worked 15-16 hour days, seven days a week, for months, trying to keep up with voter questions, changing policies and the sheer volume of mailings required for the new crush of mail-in voting.
She didn’t have to deal with the same level of conspiracy theories as many of her peers, but furious voters were the norm. One group once chanted outside her office over perceived voter suppression, because it didn’t understand that the state’s early voting process used paper ballots, not machines. She lost 16 pounds between the primary and the general election, eating all three meals at her desk every day.
For some, it was plainly untenable: Election offices across the state are seeing staff turnover. May-Silfee said a third of the state’s 67 county election directors have retired or quit in the wake of 2020.
She said she lost two of her three staff members in the days leading up to the general election.
“They said they didn’t get paid enough,” she said.
‘We’ve reset down’
Many election officials told NBC News they were worried about future elections.
“We’ve reset down,” said Scott McDonell, the county clerk in Dane County, Wisconsin. “It’s going to take a long time for us to get back to the trust level that we had a year ago.”
Restoring that trust isn’t going to be easy, either.
“We have been working throughout this election cycle to really help to increase transparency and maintain the trust,” Hobbs said. “Now we’re the ones being sort of tasked with restoring this trust, when we’re not the ones who helped destroy it.”
Many said they feared that state legislatures would try to write new laws to stop fraud that didn’t occur.
“Deplatforming” Trump from social media — after five died in the Capitol attack, while Trump tweeted in support of the rioters — had helped, many said. Their phone lines were quieter now, though some said they are still being harassed.
Many took additional precautions to protect themselves and their staff during the inauguration.
“The damage that it has done to the voters and the integrity of elections is untold,” Deeley said.
Going forward, she said, her top goal is to restore that trust.
“Just like [how] people were repeatedly told with the fraud and there was bad stuff going on, we have to start beating that drum back,” she said. “It’s a fair and free election.”