Tuesday’s hearing of the House select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol ended with perhaps the single most emotional segment in the hearings to date: a mother-daughter team of former Georgia poll workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, discussing what it was like to be singled out as part of former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories that the election was stolen — and that poll workers like Moss and Freeman were involved in the plot.
In doing so, they highlighted a serious and ongoing threat to American democracy.
In the weeks following the 2020 election, the Trump campaign and its allies publicly accused the two women of committing election fraud in Fulton County (home to Atlanta). Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, at one point claimed that the mother and daughter — who are Black — were passing around USB sticks full of doctored votes like they were “vials of heroin or cocaine” (it was actually a ginger mint, according to Moss).
During Trump’s now-infamous call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump pressured the latter to “find” enough votes to alter the election result, he mentioned the two women 18 separate times. (Raffensperger also delivered testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.)
The result was a wave of harassment that ruined the two women’s lives. Moss testified that she received “a lot of threats, wishing death upon me — telling me that, you know, I’ll be in jail with my mother and saying things like ‘be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.’” She went into hiding and said she gained 60 pounds from the stress. Trump supporters attacked her grandmother’s home, barging in and “exclaiming that they were coming in to make a citizens arrest.”
Freeman, for her part, used to proudly wear T-shirts with her nickname — “Lady Ruby” — on them. “Now,” she testified in a videotaped deposition, “I won’t even introduce myself by my name anymore.” She continued:
There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere. Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American. Not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.
This testimony revealed the real damage done to human lives by lies spouted by Trump and his allies. But it also pointed to something deeper — the way that attacks on individual poll workers chip away at the very foundations of our democracy.
Civil servants across the country, from ordinary people like Moss and Freeman to officials like Raffensperger, step up to make sure our elections run lawfully and smoothly. By targeting them so personally, Trump and his anti-democratic allies are raising the costs of such civic participation — and opening the door for MAGA disciples to infiltrate our elections infrastructure in 2022 and beyond.
Undermining democracy, one poll worker at a time
While Moss and Freeman were special targets of Trump and Giuliani, they were not the only poll workers to experience vicious harassment in the last election cycle. A 2021 survey found that 17 percent of America’s local election officials experienced threats due to their jobs during the 2020 election cycle. David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told me last year that this was very far from normal prior to 2020.
“It’s not even accurate to say [threatening election workers] was rare prior to 2020. It was so rare as to be virtually nonexistent,” he said. “This is beyond anything that we’ve ever seen.”
Sometimes, these threats were the direct result of Trump singling a poll worker out — as was the case with Freeman, Moss, and other officials like Raffensperger.
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican responsible for election oversight, became a lightning rod when Trump tweeted that he was someone who was “being used big time by the Fake News Media” as a cover for election fraud. He received a wave of threats; a deputy commissioner, Seth Bluestein, was subjected to antisemitic abuse. Schmidt’s wife got emails with threats such as “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. TREASONOUS SCHMIDTS.” The family left their home for safety reasons after the election; Schmidt has announced he will not run for reelection in 2023.
In other cases, presidential involvement wasn’t necessary to incite harassment. Trump’s conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen, and that local election officials were often part of “the steal,” had created a climate in which hardcore Trump supporters felt empowered to take matters into their own hands.
In Vermont, not exactly a swing state that interested Trump, one of his supporters sent a series of threatening messages to election officials in late 2020 — warning them, among other things, that “your days are fucking numbered.”
This harassment obviously did not enable Trump to overturn the 2020 election. But it has done immense psychological harm to election workers like Moss and Freeman, who work difficult jobs for little pay. A 2020 nationwide survey of election officials conducted by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College found that about a quarter of respondents planned to retire before the 2024 presidential election. One of the top reasons cited was “the political environment” — meaning that the politicization of their jobs and attendant threats made them want out.
When dedicated poll workers quit, it means the person’s years of expertise in specialized and technical areas vanishes. One departure, or a handful, might be manageable. Mass resignations — and an environment that dissuades the civic-minded from stepping up to fill the vacancies — can be catastrophic to election management.
That’s especially true given that Trump’s allies are working to insert their supporters into key election roles. A September 2021 ProPublica investigation documented the emergence of a “precinct strategy,” beginning with a call to action on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s radio show, in which Republicans have begun flooding local voting precincts with volunteers who could shape the counting process in the next election cycle. They found that thousands of Republicans had signed up for these roles since Bannon’s campaign began, with no similar surge on the Democratic side.
“Your best-case scenario [if poll workers quit en masse] is more problems at polling places and in voting,” Becker told me. “The worst-case scenario is not just if we lose it, but what happens when that experience gets replaced by hackery … more people who believe that their job is to deliver their election to the candidate that they want to see win.”
Election security analysts are already worrying about the 2022 midterms — in particular, whether the campaigns of harassment and intimidation of 2020 will be repeated. There are good reasons to think they will be, given that a majority of Republicans still believe Trump’s fictions about a fatally compromised electoral system.
There is a real chance that Moss and Freeman will not be the last poll workers to have their lives upended as part of Trump’s quest for power. That looming possibility and its chilling effects on civic-minded Americans could prove debilitating for our democracy.