(WASHINGTON) – Al Schmidt was at the forefront of history when a batch of votes in Philadelphia tipped the state of Pennsylvania and the 2020 presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.
As commissioner for the Republican city of Philadelphia, Schmidt had locked himself for days in the convention center, making sure every vote, by mail or in person, was counted.
âFor us, it’s really never about who wins and who loses,â Schmidt told ABC News. “It’s really about counting, counting the votes.”
He defended the vote count and the integrity of the election – only to find himself a target of former President Donald Trump. Four days after the race was called, Trump tweeted Schmidt saying, without proof, that he refused to look at “a mountain of corruption and dishonesty.”
Schmidt said that was when the threats to his life and family began to escalate.
“They have become much more specific, much more graphic, largely targeted at my family, my children,” he said. âMention my children by name, my address, photos of my house. As if the people who sent them had clearly done their homework.
Schmidt is one of a long list of state and local election officials facing increasing threats, fueling what some say is an unprecedented exodus.
A recent survey from the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials nationwide does not feel safe on the job. Almost one in five people described threats to their life as a job-related concern.
“There is, I’m sure, no electoral official in the country who, when he ran for the post … never considered death threats, let alone death threats against him. their children as part of that job description, âSchmidt said.
In Pennsylvania, nearly half of county returning officers have resigned since 2019, according to Lisa Schaefer of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. She said many others cite personal and violent threats.
âThese are people who are constantly called and yelled at by their friends and neighbors for things that are often beyond their control,â Schaefer said.
It’s not just local election officials from swing states who are being targeted.
Democrat Roxanna Moritz has resigned following the 2020 election as auditor and commissioner of elections in Scott County, Iowa, after more than a decade on the job. She cited a culture of intimidation towards election officials, who often work long hours with little pay, because “we care about our democracy.”
âThe personal attacks on all of us have made us realize that maybe this is not where we want to be,â Moritz told ABC News.
Election experts warn of the loss of institutional knowledge in this wave of resignations historically above the political fray.
Another concern, according to Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice, is who will replace the resigning officials.
âWe have seen, for example, candidates for the post of Secretary of State, who is usually the chief electoral officer of the state, who have come out and said that they basically believe in the ‘Big Lie’,â that Trump was cheated of an election victory, Howard said.
ABC News has previously reported on new state laws that shift election administration to highly partisan bodies, as part of a larger effort to push power away from officials who refuted the “big lie.” Some of these changes to election laws appear to be direct retaliation against officials who have defended the integrity of the 2020 results.
In Maricopa County, Arizona, Bill Gates is a Republican member of the board of directors responsible for overseeing the elections. His county has become a hotbed of electoral misinformation despite several recounts and audits confirming President Joe Biden’s victory.
âI have to implore these people to listen to me the truth that I am telling them, because they have been told lies for a year now, and they believe it,â he told ABC News.
More than a year after the election, Gates said he was still being targeted daily online and called out a traitor who should be jailed.
âThere have been evenings where we literally spent the night in an Airbnb because of threats,â he told ABC News. “There are nights we slept with the sheriff’s deputies outside the house because of these threats.”
Gates and Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt have both said tackling election misinformation is proving to be a critical test of American democracy.
“I think there is an added obligation for Republicans like me to tell the truth about the 2020 election and stand up to all these lies, regardless of the consequences for any of us,” said Schmidt. âWith our democracy at stake, pretty much everything is worth it. “
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