Benjamin Shultz

Disinformation & Artificial Intelligence Researcher

Curriculum vitae

Addressing the Impacts of Election Denialism on Local Government

March 10, 2023

In the days and weeks following the 2020 U.S. election, local government officials across the country began the vital, but arduous, task of counting ballots certifying results. Of the nearly one million elections workers who signed up—from secretaries of state to county clerks to poll workers—most of them worked hundreds of hours for little pay, and all of them participated in the electoral process with a sense of civic duty.
However, the 2020 election was unlike any other in recent history. For the first time since the Civil War, the peaceful transition of power from one presidential administration to the next, a hallmark of U.S. democracy for more than 225 years, was thrown out the window, stomped on and tarnished by the horrific events of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The countless, thankless hours of work put into accurately and speedily counting of more than 150 million ballots were rendered moot in a matter of hours as Congress was evacuated to secure locations throughout Washington during the siege. Not only did the January 6th insurrection threaten an unprecedented democratic crisis, but it also placed elections officials across the country directly in the bullseye of the political fringe, guided by then-President Trump, who denied, and continues to deny, the certified results of the 2020 election.
The American public is more politically polarized than it has ever been before, and the impacts of increasingly inflammatory rhetoric have supercharged political tensions between the right and the left. From Antrim County, Michigan to Philadelphia, and communities in between, local elections officials have faced a torrent of death threats and accusations of manipulating ballots—all based on the false claim the 2020 election was marred by fraud. Then-Election Commissioner of Philadelphia, Al Schmidt, was accused by name in a tweet by President Trump of destroying ballots that would have swayed the election in Pennsylvania away from Joe Biden. Schmidt stated thereafter in an interview with Philadelphia Magazine:
“But after that tweet, these threats became very specific, involving my children by name, their ages and what these monsters said they intended to do to them. My children had to move away from home and have a security detail at all times.”
Schmidt, now serving in Pennsylvania’s bipartisan gubernatorial administration as Secretary of the Commonwealth, is not alone. A Brennan Center poll of elections officials nationwide found one in six to have experienced threats, while one in five state they plan to leave their jobs before the 2024 election—citing unnecessary stress caused by such undue attacks on the elections system.
Local governments across the country are already facing devastating labor shortages, and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have lost up to 600,000 workers. The emergence of such a hostile work environment for local elections workers threatens to exacerbate this problem. Even worse, fewer elections workers would mean slower ballot processing times, which could fuel even further accusations of ballot manipulation and threats of violence.
Election denialism transcends geographic borders and social media, and is a deeply held belief by some in communities across the United States. To address the ticking time bomb the “Big Lie” poses to both our elections and the day-to-day operations of local governance, local governments must take matters into their own hands. While no city council or county board alone can offer a single solution, there are a number of tangible things they can do to ameliorate the impacts of election denialism.
Citizens trust their local governments more than their state governments or the federal government. On a practical level, this makes sense, as local governments represent individual communities. Local authorities should use this platform to plainly inform residents of the realities of ballot counting and election certification, and dispel myths. For instance, a common myth about this process is that elections officials are manipulating ballots when marking or remaking them. In reality, ballot remaking teams in many jurisdictions nationwide must be bipartisan and act under strict supervision, virtually eliminating any chance for fraud. Making facts like this one well known would ideally sway, at the very least, ‘gettable’ opinions on the illegitimacy of our elections.
Messaging campaigns outlining myths and realities like these are a good first step, however, they are not enough. Long-term investments in community-building, civics education and quality local journalism are needed to widely disseminate the message that our elections are in fact legitimate. With federal help, for example, in the form of modernizing and renewing the Help America Vote Act, local governments could secure funding for enhancing public outreach at the local level, both through messaging campaigns and more novel ideas like holding open office hours. This, hopefully, would ease the burden on our heroic elections officials who have remained steadfastly dedicated to administering fair and free elections in the face of election denialism over the last two years.

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