Election Officials Under the Microscope in 2020 Elections

December 16, 2020 by Kate Michael
Recount observers check ballots during a Milwaukee hand recount of presidential votes at the Wisconsin Center, in Milwaukee, Wis. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

WASHINGTON — Elections, in general, can be administratively challenging events, but the 2020 presidential election was a particularly fraught experience that had chief election officials under the microscope like never before.

As part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2020 Voting Experience Virtual Conference, the think tank hosted top election officials from four key battleground states to discuss their efforts counting the vote and reporting results under pressure this year.

“There has never been such an unpatriotic, un-American reaction to an election in any of our lifetimes,” said Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania secretary of state.

Conspiracy theories, misinformation, and rumors have led many to claim the election was rigged or stolen. Anger at political outcomes resulted in the verbal and physical attack on election officials both personally and professionally. But the greatest concern expressed was consequences to confidence in democracy. 

“We had a lot of misinformation. Every day we’d whack one rumor down… It’s whack-a-mole,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “It’s sad that people put out false information. We back up everything we do with facts.” 

And 2020’s election was historically transparent. 

“From day one, Secure the Vote gave voters confidence,” said Raffensperger, alluding to a website detailing Georgia’s election procedures, from registration to voting, whether in-person, early, or absentee. He also cited a verifiable paper ballot trail, a 100% hand tally that substantiated the accuracy of voting machines, and the state’s joining of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) and using DMV records as a secure way to request ballots as ways to maintain a transparent, engaged process.

“Our job is to make sure we have honest, accurately counted elections… but after every election, people have questions. We want to rebuild that confidence,” said Raffensperger, adding, “Your vote is secure. Every secure vote has been counted.”

“There are no dark corners or locked doors in elections,” offered Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s non-partisan Election Commission director, who believes the more information the public is given, the better its ability to draw proper conclusions about the integrity of the program. 

“It’s my job to know the nitty-gritty of election details. It’s also my job to turn that detail into approachable information for the public,” Wolfe said. “For most people, the elections process is new and mysterious to them every four years.” 

Wolfe contends one thing that leads to mistrust of the system is gray areas that exist in our election laws. 

“My job is to implement the law,” she said, “but not all laws are written to address each of the complexities that may exist in real-world situations. Gaps are filled by policy…. [and these] gray areas put election officials into untenable situations in hyper-partisan circumstances.” 

In 2020, policy gray areas may also have put them in physical danger.

From breaking and entering to pressuring and intimidation, death threats, and harassing texts and phone calls, election officials have been badgered and bullied this year. In just one example, crowds calling her a “traitor” and “criminal” recently surrounded the home of Michigan’s top election official, demanding that November’s election result be reversed. 

“Throughout this year we’ve had a number of events where individuals have spouted hateful rhetoric… and violent threats against the government and myself,” said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan secretary of state. 

“We personify an election in our role. We have to take what is thrown at us in a way of guarding and enabling every voter in our state,” Benson said. “We will take a punch so that someone else can vote. It’s what we sign up for.” 

“Election officials at the local, state, and federal level are the most dedicated individuals that you’ve ever seen in your life,” agreed Boockvar. “[They] are champions of our democracy and we owe them eternal gratitude.”

“The worst moments to me are the attacks on our democracy,” she said, fearing doubt in voter’s minds could lead to the erosion of the nation’s characteristic spirit. 

“[This was] the most transparent election in the history of the country,” Bookvar said. Citing poll watching, video surveillance, and 24/7 live streams of ballot counting, she added, “The entire world could see the whole process.” 

In election officials’ minds, 2020 was actually a great success story, with significant turnout despite a pandemic, and many steps taken to ensure a transparent, engaged process. But they acknowledge that rampant misinformation, assumptions of errant partisanship, and general distrust necessitate further improvements to the system. 

“This was the most secure election we’ve ever had, and we need to continue to press that message,” insisted Raffensperger.

“Every citizen should have faith in our democracy,” asserted Benson. “Questions can be solved and addressed with truth, but only if people are willing to hear it.”

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