FREDERICKSBURG , Texas (AP) — A part of why Terry Hamilton says he abruptly left his job running elections deep in Texas wine country is by now a well-recognized story in America: He became fed up with the harassment that followed the 2020 election.
But this was no abnormal exit.
On the point of November’s midterm elections, it was not only Hamilton who up and quit this month but additionally the one other full-time election employee in rural Gillespie County. The sudden emptying of a whole local elections department got here lower than 70 days before voters start casting ballots.
By the center of last week, nobody was left on the darkened and locked elections office in a metal constructing annex off the essential road in Fredericksburg. A “Your Vote Counts” poster hung in a window by the door.
A scramble is now underway to coach replacements and ground them in layers of latest Texas voting laws which can be among the many strictest within the U.S. That features assistance from the Texas Secretary of State, whose spokesperson couldn’t recall an analogous instance wherein an elections office was racing to start out over with a very latest staff. However the headaches don’t stop there.
The resignations have more broadly made the county of roughly 27,000 residents — which overwhelmingly backed former President Donald Trump in 2020 — a rare example of the fallout resulting from threats to election officials. Officials and voting experts worry that a latest wave of harassment or worse will return in November, fueled by false claims of widespread fraud.
Hamilton, who has clashed with poll watchers in Gillespie County in past elections, said he didn’t need to undergo it again.
“That’s the one thing we will’t understand. Their candidate won, heavily,” Hamilton said. “But there’s fraud here?”
He declined to debate the character of the threats in a phone interview, referring inquiries to the county attorney, who didn’t reply to a phone message. Gillespie County Sheriff Buddy Mills said neither his department nor police in Fredericksburg had received details about threats from elections officials.
Hamilton worked under Anissa Herrera, the previous county elections administrator whose resignation was first reported by the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post. “I used to be threatened, I’ve been stalked, I’ve been called out on social media,” she told the outlet. “And it’s just dangerous misinformation.”
The departures pile on the examples across the U.S. of how death threats, harassment and unfounded accusations have driven local election officials from their jobs. Citing the potential effect on democracy, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a task force last 12 months to deal with rising threats against election officials.
They’re familiar to many election employees in Texas, which has been on the vanguard of a Republican campaign nationwide to tighten election laws in response to Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Supporters are easy to search out in Gillespie County, a well-liked getaway to booming vineyards and vacation rentals within the scenic Texas Hill Country, which is a brief day trip from the state’s liberal capital in Austin but separated by a gulf politically. In 2020, Trump won the county with nearly 80% of the vote.
However the resignations surprised Mo Saiidi, chairman of the Gillespie County GOP, who said recent elections had run easily. Hamilton said run-ins with poll watchers traced back to 2020 but said other issues weighed on the office, including what he contended was was a scarcity of support from the county. He also recently decided to run as a write-in candidate for county treasurer, which he said required him to step down.
Saiidi believes funding played a task. “They’d some differences and so they couldn’t come to a closure, and so they decided in frustration to only quit,” said Saiidi, who also serves on the county’s election commission.
A survey released in March by the Brennan Center for Justice on the Latest York University School of Law found that one in three election officials knows someone who has left a job partly due to threats and intimidation, and that one in six had experienced threats personally.
In Texas alone, no less than 37 election administrators because the 2020 election have left what were previously stable positions, said Trudy Hancock, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, citing a presentation she had seen. There are 254 counties in Texas, not all of which have dedicated election administration offices.
Threats are usually not all that’s making the job tougher in Texas. A sweeping latest voting law gives wide latitude to partisan poll watchers and threatens election employees with criminal charges for denying them access. The identical law put latest restrictions on mail voting but made a messy debut during Texas’ first-in-the-nation primary in March, when more 23,000 mail ballots were discarded outright as voters struggled to navigate the brand new rules.
It underscores the challenges a latest staff will face getting in control under a time crunch. For now, Saiidi said the county clerk and tax assessor have been discussed as possible fills-in.
Hancock, who can be the elections administrator in Brazos County, said her employees could previously take indignant calls as voters blowing off steam. “But on this climate and the things that go on now, we have now to take the whole lot serious and at face value,” she said.
Lower than 24 hours after the office in Gillespie County officially cleared out, the resignations were front of mind at a pavilion in Fredericksburg, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke had swung through in his campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Roger Norman, 60, felt the election was still in good hands but called threats a pattern of intimidation. Outside, at a counter rally of Trump supporters, welder Abel Salazar said he had no concerns with elections within the heavily conservative county and that interest in poll watching was high.
“There are lots of those who have been volunteering,” Salazar, 53, said.
Hamilton said deadlines in his old office are already creeping up.
“They didn’t think we did anything,” he said. “Now they get to see what we did.”