Earlier fears of short-staffed elections averted, but some fears remain

A poll worker signs in during a class for Milwaukee election poll workers. Despite fears of trouble at polls around the country this fall, election officials in Arizona say they have been able to hire the workers needed for the election, although they acknowledge that there are still concerns and they will not let down their guard. (Photo by Morry Gash/AP/Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON – Despite earlier fears that voter intimidation and threats against officials would make it hard to find enough workers run the state’s elections this year, county recorders said they have not had too much difficulty filling those jobs.

But they also concede that workers may be looking over their shoulders more this year than in years past, and said they are not letting down their guard when it comes to protecting voters and polling places.

“There haven’t been significant issues, but the volume of people coming through is relatively small” during early voting, said Alex Gulotta, the Arizona state director of All Voting is Local. “And so I think the question is, what happens on Tuesday?”

In a news conference last week, Maricopa County elections officials tried to reassure voters that they are “97% staffed” and that those workers include Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and independents from across the county.

But Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said that after the last two years of people claiming against all evidence that the 2020 election was stolen, it seems to be nearly impossible to convince those people – citizens and elected officials alike – of the truth.

He said at last week’s news conference that the usual debates over policy differences are gone now, replaced by candidates rejecting objective facts.

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“We’re not having a conversation about democracy, we’re having an epistemological crisis in many ways that is focused right here in Maricopa County,” Richer said. “We’re talking about, basically, is two plus two equals 4.”

The concerns come as 2020 election deniers – including the GOP nominees for statewide office – continue to make claims about that election and raise fears about this fall’s voting.

Those claims spurred groups to post themselves at election drop boxes to tail, photograph and occasionally challenge voters as they dropped off their ballots. That activity led to at least 18 reports of intimidation being filed with the secretary of state’s office as of last week, and a federal court order limiting what drop-box watchers could do.

On Oct. 21, two people were recorded outside a ballot drop box in Mesa wearing tactical gear and carrying firearms, according to security camera video posted by the recorder’s office. On Oct. 22, a profanity-laden email to Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Election Services Director Kori Lorick threatened that “all corrupt and treasonous government officials” would be removed from office, and then asked if they “remember the French Revolution of 1799??”

Richer said the repeated misinformation about election security has led to the heightened tension around the election, especially in the fourth-largest county in the nation. He pointed to a “60 Minutes” interview last week in which Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican like Richer, flatly rejected the claims of problems with Arizona elections.

“If you can’t accept election results after all the tests, after all the professional audits, after all the court cases, after Mark Brnovich gets on ’60 Minutes’ and says this is all horse … ,” Richer said, leaving out the expletive Brnovich used, “then it ain’t ever happening.”

Gulotta said that beyond the disagreements, the people who believe in election-related conspiracies enough to try to intimidate voters are a threat to democracy.

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“This anti-democratic movement is about power, it’s about going back to a time and place where white, wealthy people decided who would be in power,” he said.

It is not the first time election workers have faced threats. In one intimidation report with the secretary of state, in which a voter described a group of people photographing them as they dropped off their ballot, the voter went to say that poll workers inside the polling location said things were worse in the furor over the 2020 election.

“The ladies said it was worse last year when they all had guns,” the voter said in the Oct. 19 incident report. “Some workers had quit due to these conspiracy idiots.”

But Graham County Elections Director Hannah Duderstadt said her poll workers have not been feeling the same amount of pressure as those in Maricopa County, saying in an email that this year was just “business as usual for us.”

“While it has always been a hurdle to find enough poll workers for our outlying precincts on the reservation, we thankfully have not encountered difficultly in filling our vote centers,” Duderstadt said in her email.

“Yes, they have sensed a bit of heightened scrutiny in the last election, but they are nonetheless excited to be working the polls,” she wrote.

Coconino County Elections Director Eslir Musta echoed Duderstadt, saying that there “has not been a prevailing sense of concern” among poll workers in his county.

Musta said the fact that there “hasn’t been an exodus en masse” is reassuring, showing that poll workers feel safe enough to serve their community.

But he also added that his office is preparing for a number of different scenarios to ensure peoples’ safety.

“We’re not blind,” Musta said.

Ryan Knappenberger Ry-an Nap-pen-ber-ger
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Ryan Knappenberger expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Knappenberger has interned with The Arizona Republic and The Copper Courier.