Picketed at work, confronted at church: Why election workers have left the job

Election workers facing unprecedented harassment are retiring in huge numbers, posing a threat to the U.S. voting system. 
Protesters call for a "forensic audit" of the 2020 presidential election, during a demonstration by a group called Election Integrity Fund and Force, outside of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on Oct. 12, 2021. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the course of 20 years as an election administrator in Shasta County, Calif., Cathy Darling Allen oversaw nearly a dozen national election cycles and countless local races.

In February, she decided she’d had enough.

Allen announced she would be retiring, citing the negative impact that the job was having on her health, especially in recent years. In a public letter, she wrote that she had been diagnosed with heart failure and her chances for recovery relied on substantial stress reduction, something that was “a tough ask to balance with election administration in the current environment.”

In an interview with CyberScoop, Allen was more blunt about what triggered her decision to leave: “Being concerned on a daily basis about your own physical safety and the safety of the folks who work for us and the voters who come in to cast their ballots takes a toll.”


Allen is not alone in choosing to step down as an election administrator. Across the United States election officials are leaving their posts in droves, citing threats, harassment and acts of violence at levels not seen in decades — a development that experts caution  poses a far greater threat to U.S. elections than malicious hackers or AI-enabled deepfakes. 

The persistence of violent intimidation four years after 2020, when then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed to have been the victim of widespread voter fraud, has altered the relationship between election officials and many of his followers. These voters — many of whom organize and spread misinformation via the internet and social media platforms — are increasingly willing to confront, berate and challenge the integrity of election officials, including with violent intimidation, like in 2023 when envelopes filled with white powder were sent to election offices across four different states.

The personnel issues facing election administration is one federal officials readily acknowledge. Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, warned the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that the country has seen “a wave of resignations with election officials taking operational experience and institutional knowledge,” while “those who remain are operating under difficult conditions.”

No safe havens for election officials

Last year, Shasta County, a conservative stronghold of California, voted to terminate its existing contract with Dominion Voting Systems, the company that played a central role in conspiracy theories around widespread voter fraud, and rely instead on hand-counted ballots. After state Democrats blocked the move to hand counting, the county spent nearly $1 million to replace their voting systems, putting officials like Allen in the crosshairs of  locals convinced that any reliance on electronic voting machines would lead to fraud.


Some would follow her to her car after work. Others picketed her office, chanting “where is Cathy?”

Convinced that the harassment and stress had contributed to her health problems, Allen accelerated her retirement plans. “My family has sacrificed a lot for me to do this work, which I am very passionate about and very dedicated to, but I’ve had to take a good look at what my priorities are,” she said. “I can’t fight the fight if I’m not alive.”

A former city clerk for Rochester Hills, Mich., Tina Barton knows intimately the fear that lingers from clashes with voters convinced that their local election officials are subverting the vote. 

Barton was one of many election officials who had their lives upended in the wake of 2020. Days after the presidential race was called for Joe Biden, she received a phone call from a man who said she and her colleagues had “frauded out America” from holding a “real election.” 

Then he told her to watch her back.


“Ten million plus patriots will surround you when you least expect it, and your little infantile Deep State security agency has no time to protect you because they’ll be bought out and we’ll f—ing kill you,” the messenger said.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that the man who made the threat, Carmel, Ind., resident Andrew Nickels, would be indicted and pleaded guilty to making a threatening interstate communication. 

Barton has said she will “never be able to turn back the clock and go back to living in a sense of peace as I had done prior to this incident.”

The past four years have left her isolated, as onetime friends and neighbors have increasingly treated her as a stand-in for their suspicions around elections. She no longer involves herself in extracurricular activities or teams and doesn’t travel nearly as much as she used to for fear of being recognized.

A lifelong Christian, Barton said she now arrives at church right before service starts and leaves soon after it ends to avoid having her fellow parishioners press material into her hand claiming that the election was stolen in one way or another. A place of “peace and rest” for Barton has become “another place for me to have a confrontation.”


“That has been a personal, pretty emotional experience for me,” Barton said. 

Rage against the lying light

As Washington’s secretary of state between 2013 and 2021, Kim Wyman has seen up close how elections have become more heated. If the current era of election hostility began in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to halt the counting of ballots in Florida and make George W. Bush president, 2020 was far worse, with threats becoming more targeted, more personal and with a higher volume directed at election officials.  

“Social media has allowed for a much wider reach for people who are angry at the outcome to reach out and touch election officials six states away,” Wyman said. 

Both Allen, a Democrat, and Barton, a Republican, say that online information ecosystems on social media, in chat groups and within far-right circles have played a major part in injecting national political discourse into local policy disputes and coloring debates around election security with conspiratorial hues.


While many experts believe that social media and online communities have contributed to the prevalence of election-related conspiracy theories, it remains difficult to draw a straight line from online discourse to threats against election officials.  

Most election-related falsehoods are spread by a disproportionately small group of users, known as supersharers. During the 2020 election, about 80% of fake news on Twitter was disseminated by a small cohort of users, according to a study in Science published earlier this year. 

Some argue that social media algorithms nudge users toward more radical or conspiratorial views, but more recent research suggests that in the aggregate they tend “to offer extreme content predominantly to those who have sought it out,” as a team of leading researchers recently argued in Nature

While the consumption and effect of online mis-and-disinformation on the broader population may be overstated, a recent analysis by researchers at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center found that criminal charges for threatening public officials have ballooned over the past decade, with election workers among the most frequently targeted.  

Barton, who has since gone on to work for the federal Election Assistance Commission and the nonprofit Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, said that while national officials tend to receive a disproportionate amount of harassment via social media and email, local officials get much of it “over the counter and through the phone.”


Precisely what triggers a person to cross the line from making threats of violence to acting on them is not well understood by science, and effectively teasing out contributing factors around radicalization continues to be the subject of debate among researchers.

According to Steve Sin, a research scientist at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, surveys of the public have shown that two emotions in particular tend to be associated with individuals who are more likely to go beyond violent rhetoric into violent acts: a belief that taking action will help lead to a better future and fear that failure to take action will cause societal problems to fester and worsen. 

This is particularly true if the individual feels something personally threatens them and their way of life, leading to the “fear that if I don’t do anything, it’s just going to continue to get worse, and if I do something, that it’s going to get better,” Sin said. 

Election officials on the receiving end of such threats insist that the internet and social media have played an important role in accelerating instances of harassment and threats toward election workers, priming many voters to see members of their community as avatars of a looming national conspiracy. They receive bursts of phone calls from residents in different states accusing them of failing to prevent voter fraud or actively facilitating it, usually spurred on by a post or blog that went viral in right-wing circles.

Election veterans who spoke to CyberScoop described the COVID-19 pandemic as a turning point in their relationships with their communities. In some towns, the effects of the virus, the policy responses to it and the high-stakes 2020 election acted as an accelerant for confrontations with residents primed to distrust their government and how their vote was being secured.


Janine Eveler, a former elections director for Cobb County, Ga., who retired in 2023, said that even before the 2020 election was contested by Trump, the pandemic “created a huge problem for staffing and retention” with most of her older employees opting to stay out of the fray to avoid risking infection. After 2020, the level of skepticism she saw from some Cobb County voters increased significantly, as did their willingness to forcefully challenge election outcomes.

All of that added up to a mass of election officials “who decided this was a good time to leave,” Eveler said. Knowing she was up for retirement in 2023, Eveler tried to hire someone who could be groomed to replace her as elections director when she stepped down. Every time she brought someone on board, they would quit.

“It was not comfortable to be around people who were accusing you of fraud and things like that, and you’re trying to convince people you were just trying to do your job,” she said. 

The ties that blind

While it’s not always possible to disentangle cause and effect around online misinformation, it is clear to many election officials that the viewpoints voters have encountered online around election fraud are so deeply ingrained that they can override other bonds, like friendship, family and community.

Many report that their personal and family relationships have been irrevocably altered by the experience. Neighbors and friends who once leaned on them as authoritative sources of election information now see them as emissaries of a deep state bent on disenfranchising the country.


The most disheartening exchanges are with direct relatives. Despite lifelong ties, the partisan divide around voter fraud often comes to define interactions with brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and even parents. Some insist that relatives administering elections are hapless pawns in a larger game or that they are one of the few “good ones” in an otherwise hopelessly corrupt field.

“Some of the most uncomfortable conversations I’ve had were with members of my family,” Eveler said, noting that these interactions can be more caustic because family members “are willing to challenge you — and they don’t hold back.”

“It’s frustrating because these people have known you your whole life, they trusted you in the most intimate things in family life, and yet they don’t trust that you’re going to conduct an election accurately,” she said.

Sin said that the human brain “much more prefers to have complete information that makes sense to us than having incomplete information that may or may not make sense.” When faced with the contradiction of a trusted family member who is also part of a group they have internally demonized, most people will fall back to a simpler explanation, one that usually aligns with their deeply held ideological beliefs.

In 2021, Wyman visited old family friends in Idaho who had helped the family get their affairs in order after the death of her parents.


“When I first got there the first thing my dear friend said to me was ‘there’s nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise, I know it was stolen,’” Wyman recalled. “And I responded with ‘I’m not going to try, but I’ll answer any questions you have.’”

Wyman spent two hours in a bar debunking various myths and falsehoods about the election system, about unsecured ballots and dead people voting. By the end, the family friend was willing to listen to what she had to say — but only after hours of patient discussion with a trusted family friend and a registered Republican.

“Had I been a Democratic Secretary of State I’m pretty sure they probably wouldn’t have listened to a word I said,” Wyman said. “Those are the very walls we have to try to figure out how to break down.” 

Eveler said she remains happy in her retirement, traveling more and spending time with her grandchildren. She still gets calls from old colleagues asking questions about proper procedures or to get her advice on how to handle administrative matters.

She answers as many as she can because election work — and the long hours and stress it brings — was “the hardest job I’ve ever loved,” and one that continues to be important to the well-being of the country.


“But I’m glad I’m not in the middle of it anymore,” she said.  

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