Educational materials provided by the Committee of Safe and Secure...

Educational materials provided by the Committee of Safe and Secure Elections are pictured at a conference with local election and law enforcement officials Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping them prepare for what could lie ahead and making sure they are connected to local law enforcement. Credit: AP/John Russell

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The group gathered inside the conference room, mostly women, fell silent as the audio recording began to play.

The male voice, clearly agitated, railed against what he thought had been fraud that cost former President Donald Trump reelection four years ago.

“You’re gonna pay for it,” said the man, filling his message with expletives and suggesting his target's throat be slashed with a knife. “We will … take you out. Your family, your life.

"Watch your … back."

The call had been directed at one of their own, a city clerk who had overseen elections in 2020 in suburban Detroit. The former clerk, Tina Barton, played the recording of the call she had received to an audience that included several dozen local election clerks and law enforcement officials who had gathered recently inside an office building conference room in northern Michigan.

“I want you to understand this voicemail is the same type of thing that we’re seeing across the country, and it can find you anywhere you are — small community, large community, Michigan, Arizona. It can find you,” said Barton, who was overseeing elections in Rochester Hills when she received the voicemail a week after the 2020 presidential election.

The recent gathering in Traverse City, a picturesque community on the shores of Lake Michigan in a county that has twice voted for Trump, was part of a national effort to train local election workers on how they can respond to threats and work with law enforcement to counter them.

Tina Barton, a former election clerk, speaks at a conference...

Tina Barton, a former election clerk, speaks at a conference with local election and law enforcement officials held by the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping them prepare for what could lie ahead. Barton, who was overseeing elections in Rochester Hills, Mich., spoke about receiving a threatening voicemail a week after the 2020 presidential election. Credit: AP/John Russell

As the nation barrels toward another highly charged presidential election, the threats to election offices that have been an alarming consequence of Trump’s false claims about his 2020 loss loom as a perilous wildcard for the thousands of local government workers who will oversee the indispensable infrastructure of the nation’s democracy. The constant threats and harassment have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country.

THREATS ‘ALREADY HAPPENING’

Barton understands the pressure they are under and has been on a mission to help them stay safe. She left her job in Rochester Hills shortly after the 2020 election and later became part of the newly formed Committee for Safe and Secure Elections. Since joining, she has given nearly 100 presentations throughout the country.

Earlier this month, The Associated Press was granted rare access inside the committee’s training session in Traverse City and allowed to observe the scenarios election workers are likely to face this year and the discussions about how they and law enforcement can prepare for them.

Justin Smith, a retired Colorado sherriff from Larimer County, Colo.,...

Justin Smith, a retired Colorado sherriff from Larimer County, Colo., speaks during a recording for the Committee of Safe and Secure Elections during a conference with local election and law enforcement officials Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Traverse City, Mich. A top concern for local election workers throughout the country this year is their own safety. The committee, formed after the 2020 presidential election, is traveling the country helping prepare for what could lie ahead. Smith signed up after retiring last year and hearing from local election officials about the threats they have faced since 2020. Credit: AP/John Russell

The threats to Barton started after she posted a video that was intended to counter false claims directed at her office by Ronna McDaniel, then-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

“None of these scenarios are sensational. They are all things that have already happened in some way, shape or form across the country,” Barton tells the group. “To say, ‘Oh, that could never happen.’ These things are already happening.”

Barton’s partner in the trainings is Justin Smith, the former sheriff in Larimer County, Colorado, who signed up after retiring last year and hearing directly from local election officials about the onslaught of threats they have faced since 2020.

Smith often speaks directly to the police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the room, explaining the role they play in elections and how the environment has changed since 2020. In past years, election officials were likely to deal with issues on their own, such as protesters or unruly citizens looking to promote their candidates at polling places.

“It’s not that simple anymore,” Smith tells the group. “We need to be at the table and be part of the solution.”

To election officials, he explains how law enforcement has historically sought to keep its distance from anything to do with elections, mindful of First Amendment concerns and not wanting to interfere with anyone’s right to vote.

“When initially I would bring up the topic, there were a lot of law enforcement folks that kind of winced, just because it’s a very controversial area.” Smith said during an interview after the training.

‘FRONTLINE DEFENDERS’ OF DEMOCRACY

Barton guides the election officials through various scenarios and encourages them to think through their responses, when it makes sense to alert law enforcement and when to consider releasing information to the public.

“I know there’s been some, maybe disgruntlement across the country from some election officials that feel that they haven’t gotten the response from law enforcement that they thought law enforcement should give,” Barton tells the election officials. “So these conversations help us understand what they can actually do in those scenarios and what they can’t do.”

She said election offices might deal with everything from threatening emails and phone calls to an AI-generated robocall sent to poll workers telling them to stay home on Election Day. One of the scenarios Barton presented to the group mirrors events that unfolded in the days immediately after elections last fall, when local election offices in a handful of states received letters in the mail that contained fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid.

The fentanyl example sparked animated conversations among the election workers, as many of them began to understand they were not taking sufficient precautions. As one clerk and her deputy sat next to each other, they realized that also was how they opened mail — together in the clerk’s office.

“If something were to happen to both of them, where does that chain of command go? For some of you, that might be your whole office,” Barton tells the group.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, whose office helped sponsor and coordinate the Traverse City training and who also has endured numerous threats, said it's imperative for law enforcement and election officials to work together to ensure a smooth election in November.

Benson said her office has been providing grants to election offices to help them boost security. The federal government also is engaged in the effort. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will assess the physical security of local election offices and has written guidance for workers on how to de-escalate tense situations.

Spencer Wood, the federal agency’s regional election security adviser, told the attendees they were not facing the threats alone and praised them as the “frontline defenders” of the nation’s elections.

“For more than 200 years, American democracy has withstood a range of physical, cyber and operational risks — and 2024 will be no different,” he said.

‘SAD THAT WE ARE AT THIS POINT’

Throughout the training, Barton referenced the election officials who have retired or left the profession, citing the stress since the 2020 presidential election. A survey last year by the Brennan Center for Justice found that about 1 in 5 election workers knew someone who left their election job for safety reasons and nearly three-quarters of local election officials said harassment had increased. Barton emphasized to the clerks the importance of having access to mental health services.

One longtime election official who attended the Michigan training, East Bay Township Clerk Susanne Courtade, not only plans to stay for the November election but is running for another term despite being harassed in the aftermath of the 2020 election. She said she faced attacks on her character and demands for her removal.

“I felt attacked, but then I also felt that if I stepped aside, they win,” she said. “I’m sad that we are at this point where we have to understand better how to prepare and protect ourselves and our citizens and our workers, but I’m glad that we are able to come together.”

Even as the clerks prepare for November, many of them expressed concerns over what they could face.

The week before the training session, Trump held a rally two hours south in Grand Rapids. Joining him onstage were a handful of county sheriffs from across Michigan who support him and who heard Trump repeat claims that Democrats “cheat in elections.”

This past week, a small group of sheriffs from across the country gathered in Las Vegas to join forces with prominent election conspiracy theorists. The group, which calls itself the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, argues that sheriffs have unlimited power and must investigate elections.

Traverse City Clerk Benjamin Marentette said training sessions like the one in Traverse City are crucial to make sure local election offices and law enforcement are communicating.

“You can build that trust because everyone – law enforcement and election officials – 99% of them are there for the right reasons and with a true heart for service,” Marentette said.

Michael D. Shea, the sheriff in Grand Traverse County, said he was surprised at how vulnerable election officials can be because of the requirements associated with their job. A Republican who is on the ballot in the fall, Shea said it was understandable to have some concerns about elections, particularly with the use of technology in parts of the voting process, but said he trusted experts and his local election officials.

“The goal is a safe, secure, fair election," said Shea, who attended the training. "And we intend to make that happen.”

___

Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.

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