Election Officials Prep For An Ugly 2024 With Mental Health And Stress Trainings For Staff

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In a normal election year, election workers would be focused on recruiting and training poll workers, securing polling sites, preparing voting technology, and providing voters with the information they need to cast a ballot in the months leading up to November. But after the chaos, threats and violence of 2020, election officials across the country are  adding mental health training for election workers to their election prep to-do lists.

Last July, Irene Salter, a Shasta County, California resident who specializes in professional development for leaders in crisis, led a four-hour stress resiliency workshop for the Shasta County California Elections Department. 

The workshop was aptly called, “We’re NOT okay! Research-Backed Ways to Create a Culture of Health and Wellbeing in a Challenging Time.” Coming off the heels of the 2020 election, where election workers across the country faced an unprecedented amount of intimidation and harassment, Salter, who has a PhD in neuroscience, recognized that Shasta County election workers needed stress management tools to navigate the new and at times dangerous environment.

The workshop — the first of its kind for Shasta County’s election department — focused, in part, on the biology of stress: how it impacts behavior, what it looks like in the human system, and the difference between immediate stress and chronic stress. Salter explained during the four hour training that, for many in the department, their stress system had been activated for weeks and even months on end due to the unreasonable demands of their jobs. 

Stress management training has quickly become essential for anyone working in elections, a licensed therapist familiar with the Shasta County Elections Department Lynn Fritz told TPM. “It’s how they keep themselves balanced and healthy,” she said. The long term stress that all election officials have experienced since 2020 and continue to experience, she said, can have significant physical consequences too: elevated blood pressure, fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, sleep disruption, stomach upset, a compromised immune system, among other symptoms.

Even though the Shasta County workshop did not touch on the 2020 election specifically, the county’s election department, like most U.S. election offices, is still reeling from the impact of an election that brought with it a barrage of threats and violence against election workers at a local and national level. There have been no recorded instances of threats to Shasta workers directly, but the department has been on high alert after watching and hearing about violence carried out against election workers elsewhere, according to Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen.

As it stands now the Department of Justice’s Election Threats Task Force, established in 2021 to address violence against election workers, has charged more than a dozen people for threatening election workers. 

Darling Allen told TPM that the fact that election officials are now being asked to learn to mitigate the effects of violent threats and harassment, is akin to “asking the rape victim, why’d you wear that outfit?” There’s no single solution, but yet, election departments across the country have still been tasked with finding a solution to an issue that was once a foreign concern for those going through the motions of election administration. 

Experts told TPM that harassment and intimidation will be an inevitable part of the voting process in 2024, and although there are no ways to mitigate that threat completely, there are ways to get ahead of it. 

For example, the not-for-profit Carter Center developed a “well-being resource guide” for election administrators to give to staff following the barrage of threats election workers endured in 2020. The guide includes explanations of the signs and effects of trauma, ways to promote “resiliency and recovery” in the face of threats, online security tools to prevent doxing, as well as ways to access support groups and mental health services. It even includes recommendations like breathing exercises, meditation, as well as specific techniques to combat flashbacks and disturbing thoughts.

The non-partisan Elections Group has also created resources to help election officials support workers who have faced threats and who may need mental health support. Annie Mendoza, elections expert with the Elections Group told TPM that the group partnered with a mental health professional to review the resources they created.

“A lot of us did experience threats and harassment and things like that, so we know firsthand what everyone is going through,” she said. “And I guess you can say we don’t feel like we can just sit back and not do anything about it, not help our colleagues.”

Mendoza said they’re still in the initial phases of building out these resources, but one of the things she and her colleagues are focused on is developing quick and easy resiliency techniques for mindfulness and self-care that workers could use in tense moments on the job. That can include simple stuff like smelling a candle, giving yourself a five-minute hand massage, or using a fancy bar of soap. The focus, she said, is to make these techniques easy to implement on the fly for election workers who are already working 12-plus hour days.

Election officials around the country are also implementing their own new tactics and stress resiliency trainings to lessen the harms of threats and fears for their staff. TPM spoke to a handful of current and former election officials across the country who said they’re managing the evolving and at-times dangerous new environment by incorporating stress resiliency programs into the workplace, like the one in Shasta County.

These programs could prove to be particularly beneficial in swing states and counties that have previously found themselves at the apex of election fraud conspiracy theories, such as Maricopa County in Arizona. Four years ago, county Supervisor Bill Gates along with his wife and three daughters were the victims of death threats after Fox News called the state for President Joe Biden in 2020, Gates said.

His experience in, as he calls it, a “toxic environment” following 2020 was a factor in his decision to not run for reelection in 2024.

Former Georgia election’s director and current deputy director of Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council Chris Harvey similarly said that even though Georgia’s election was “nearly flawless” in 2020, he still received a message in January 2021 saying his “days were numbered.” 

Harvey, who has a wife and four children, said after that threat, law enforcement patrolled his home for weeks. He ultimately decided to leave his post, not necessarily because he was afraid of the threats, but because, as he describes it, “the accumulated weight of everything we experienced in 2020.”

In some cases, the very workers who experienced threats to their safety during the last presidential cycle are the ones trying to help others develop coping mechanisms too.

In late 2020 Nathan Jaramillo, bureau of elections administrator for Bernalillo County, New Mexico, was threatened by an individual, who, after contacting him via email, showed up in front of his home. Now, going into 2024, he is particularly concerned about election worker safety. His office recently held an all-day team-building event, which was in part, focused on stress management techniques, coping strategies, and recognizing signs of burnout, he told TPM. 

And former Rochester Hills, Michigan Clerk Tina Barton, was the victim of death threats from an Indiana man who, earlier this month, pleaded guilty in a federal Detroit court for threats against Barton. 

Barton is focused now on ways to get ahead of violence in 2024.

As part of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, which was developed by election officials who dealt with threats and harassment in 2020 as a way to help the election community, she is traveling and hosting tabletop exercises and presentations throughout the country, bringing law enforcement and local election officials together to talk through possible intimidation scenarios. 

Although she’s “cautious” going into 2024, Barton is hopeful that the conversations about safety and security of election officials happening across the country will help to, as she describes it, “make sure that every person stays safe and secure on election day and leading up to election day through the whole process.”

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