This story has been corrected to change the quote “thousands“ to “a thousand” to describe how many elections officials lodged complaints with the Justice Department of being threatened.
Days after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Tina Barton, the city clerk of Rochester Hills, Mich., and a Republican, received a voicemail containing accusations about how she administered the election in her town, as well as a threat: “Ten million plus patriots will surround you when you least expect it... and we’ll f---ing kill you.”
Andrew Nickels, 37, of Carmel, Ind., was arraigned Aug. 11 in federal district court in Detroit for allegedly leaving the voicemail. The case is part of the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force, which was created in 2021 amid a rise in threats against election workers. In its first year, the task force reviewed 1,000 threats, 11% of which merited a federal criminal investigation.
“I had my life threatened... they threatened me, my family, said they were going to kill me in public,” Barton said during a news conference Tuesday with other activists working toward safe and secure polls. “I’m one of a thousand election officials who turned in threats.” And one of many who resigned following the 2020 election.
Those volunteers need to be replaced, said Barton, now a senior expert for The Elections Group, which works with state and local officials across the country. Speaking ahead of National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, she encouraged Americans to volunteer, especially military veterans, who she believes have the skills to help de-escalate the confrontational situations that experts have warned could occur in 2024.
“I see a huge benefit in having veterans working at polling locations,” Barton said. “They’re ... vigilant, they’re looking at all times for any problems that might occur. To me, having them as part of that adds another layer of security in the precincts.”
Barton’s organization has partnered with nonprofit We the Veterans, which has recruited 63,500 veterans and military family members to work the polls during the 2022 midterms and is gearing up for 2024.
The group doesn’t have a tally yet of how many people it’s recruited for 2024, nor has it established a specific goal. We the Veterans expects to begin recruiting in earnest later this year, said Ellen Gustafson, a co-founder of We the Veterans. The group will target states with public service announcements, encouraging veterans to work the polls as a way to continue serving their country. Over time, Gustafson, a Navy spouse, wants their participation in elections to become a standard practice.
“Our goal is not necessarily numerical, it’s to make it a new norm,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson agreed with Barton that veterans could use their skills to de-escalate potential conflict at polling stations, though she made clear that We the Veterans is recruiting poll workers, not “poll watchers.” At least one group that made baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020 encouraged veterans during the 2022 midterms to show up to precincts to monitor voting and act as vigilantes — something We the Veterans does not support, she said.
Instead, the group wants veterans and military family members to be legitimate poll workers, paid by local jurisdictions to set up voting machines, answer questions, check voters’ identification, monitor the collection of ballots and pass out “I Voted” stickers.
Veterans are also accustomed to teamwork — another quality needed at precincts after the exodus of poll workers in 2020, Barton said. Those workers were typically retired Americans who had volunteered together at their local jurisdictions for many years and built a rapport.
“We’ve lost workers who had these established relationships, and what we’re left with is a gap,” Barton said. “That gap is ready to be filled by groups like We the Veterans. Veterans are great at organizing and working in groups, and teamwork is a big deal when you’re bringing strangers together to do a job.”
How to volunteer
To sign up as a poll worker through We the Veterans, veterans and military family members can sign up on the group’s website at wetheveterans.us and indicate their interest in working the polls in 2023 or 2024. Each state has its own qualifications, training requirements and pay for poll workers. A guide to those requirements can be found on the Election Assistance Commission’s website, eac.gov.
Other groups exist to recruit members of other communities to work the polls. Poll Hero encourages young people to sign up for the job, and a More Perfect Union recruits members of the Jewish community. Prospective poll workers can also volunteer through the group Power to the Polls.
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.