Election Officials Get Pointers On How To Appear More Human To Extremists

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Earlier this year, Mark Coakley, director of elections for Henrico County, Virginia, received an email from a concerned voter.

The email contained a link to MyPillow Guy and election denier Mike Lindell’s most recent conspiracy theory-laden documentary, asking Coakley for his thoughts. Coakley watched the video, emailed the voter back and suggested they go out to Panera and discuss the film over lunch. But before that one-hour lunch, because he’s a notetaking kind of guy, he watched it once more in full while taking extensive notes.   

Coakley dispelled much of the false information from Lindell’s film during that lunch, and although the voter wasn’t fully convinced, Coakley says the two are friends now. It was an important moment for Coakley, who, even after the violence and intimidation experienced by election officials across the country following the 2020 election, wasn’t afraid to meet with a voter who was suspicious of the county’s electoral system. And Panera was a safe public spot, he told TPM, adding that he believes it’s important for voters to know that election officials are actual members of the community, and not faceless bureaucrats worthy of suspicion.

It’s this type of interaction that is illustrative of a recent effort from the Election Center, a nonprofit group also known as the National Association of Election Officials, to update a code of conduct for election officials. The updated manual, a reaction to the violence of 2020, specifically focuses on how election officials can work to build public trust — and make themselves appear more human to the people who may be vulnerable to embracing disinformation pushed by election deniers and conspiracy theorists.

The updated code is supported by research from faculty members at Auburn University, which, in part, found that messaging that helps paint election officials as neighbors resonates with low trust voters, according to Mitchell Brown, political science professor at Auburn University. The 10 standards of conduct themselves are more or less the same as they’ve been in the past, but there are now added annotations to each standard that emphasize how officials can reassure voters that the ways they are running their local elections are “both supported in law and the right thing,” Brown told TPM.

“It’s important for people to understand that this is not some person who’s got their finger on the scale in a smoky backroom,” said Chief Executive Officer for Programs of The Election Center Tammy Patrick. “These are the people we sit next to at worship or that shop at our same grocery store.”

But what some may see as a heartwarming tale of bridging political divides or a gallant effort to humanize election workers at the micro level, the Panera lunch is also reflective of a broader, grim reality for election workers: that they must continue trying to gain public trust and make themselves appear human to those who are still, four years later, wholly convinced that they are stealing elections from Donald Trump.

It’s an important effort, and one that will imbue the system with “what the voting public needs in order to have faith in it,” according to Patrick. But she also acknowledged that since 2020, election officials are experiencing extreme pressure and continue to be under threat. And the threats are so real, she said, that she has friends in counties in different parts of the country that have had to wear kevlar vests to work. 

Maricopa County supervisor Bill Gates similarly said that after the death threats he received following the last presidential election, it was suggested to him during a “sobering” conversation in 2022  that he too wear a bulletproof vest to work. He didn’t wear a vest, but he did limit the amount of time he spent going outside in general. 

Patrick said that election officials have told her that they put on a “good face” for their staff, but at the end of the day, before they go home to their families, they will often close their office doors and cry. 

And while the effort to bridge the gap between distrustful voters and election officials is a necessary one, the fact that such a humanizing effort exists only serves to highlight how hostile the environment for carrying out one’s civic duty has become in the last four years. One of the principles in the manual grimly reminds election workers: “I am accessible and receptive to both individuals and groups and aspire to build positive relationships within the community.” The updated annotation then offers suggestions for applying this principle, such as being transparent with the public and responding to communications from voters, among other things. 

 “This is truly a turning point potentially in our history and why we wanted to make sure that as a national association we were providing our members with a reminder of the roles that they play in the greater context,” she said. 

Gates, who has not yet seen the updated manual, but says it sounds like something he would support, explained that there are certain people who will simply never be trustful of election officials, but that the focus should really be on the population that will. 

“Not everyone has open ears and open minds, but we just keep at it,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet to this, but we’re just going to continue to get the truth out there.”

For election officials, election administration on election night can, according to Patrick, be “intoxicating.”

“It’s the endorphins of election night that kind of carry you through,” she said. “It’s sort of like childbirth where you forget about how bad the last one was.”

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