Oct 19, 2022 - Politics

FBI warns of threats to Pennsylvania election workers

Illustration of a traffic safety cone surrounded by various colors and ballot icons

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Philadelphia Commissioner Lisa Deeley likened her job overseeing the electoral process in the city to that of a "wedding planner" before 2020.

  • But misinformation and election conspiracies have made the gig increasingly dangerous for election officials in the Keystone State and across the country.

Why it matters: Experts warn that misinformation can erode the public's trust in democratic processes and that safety concerns can push election officials to leave their posts.

Threat level: The FBI and the Department of Justice have identified Pennsylvania as among the top states for threats to election workers.

  • As of this June, nearly 60% of 1,000 reports to a task force monitoring threats to election workers were in states that experienced election challenges, recounts or audits in 2020, such as Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania, the federal agencies said in a report.
  • About 11% of those cases required further investigative action.

What's happening: Election officials in southeastern Pennsylvania told Axios they've seen threats decline since 2020, but they're still vigilant against possible disruptions and misinformation ahead of Nov. 8.

  • "We are preparing in similar fashion as we did in 2020," said Deeley, who has written about being harassed and threatened.
  • A Pennsylvania Department of State spokesperson told Axios most threats seen across the state are "anonymous, often cryptic" and frequently imply "that election officials are being watched."

Dori Sawyer, elections director in Montgomery County, told Axios her office has seen more misinformation spreading in the lead up to next month's polls.

  • Sawyer said they're focused on increasing outreach and showing skeptics who call or come to the office the transparency of the voting system.
  • Montgomery has a dedicated communications manager for voting services who answers questions, allays concerns and encourages people to get more involved in the voting process, Sawyer said. That's helped deconstruct some of the myths and change minds.

Zoom out: Some Pennsylvania officials said they're concerned about election deniers trying to become poll watchers, a trend seen elsewhere across the U.S.

  • In one Colorado county, more than 30 poll watchers for the June primary were affiliated with election denial organizations, Axios' John Frank reports.

What they're saying: Incidents like the 2020 arrests of two supporters of former President Trump who drove with guns to the Philadelphia Convention Center, where votes were being counted, have "real-life consequences" for election officials, Al Schmidt, a former city commissioner now with the Committee of Seventy, told Axios.

  • Schmidt, who oversaw the last presidential election in Philadelphia, recalled facing death threats after Trump called him a "RINO" — Republican in name only — in a November 2020 tweet for refusing to back the former president's baseless election fraud claims.
  • Such claims not only undermine confidence in elections but can lead "experienced election officials to leave their jobs and be replaced by less experienced administrators who are more likely to make mistakes in an environment where every mistake is perceived to be intentional and malicious," Schmidt said.

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