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Poll workers face threats ahead of the 2024 election. This Kansas City woman fears for her safety

A woman in a grey shirt and jeans stands with her hand on her hip and her other on a sign that says "Vote Here." Her shirt says "Vote like your rights depend on it."
Savannah Hawley-Bates
/
KCUR 89.3
Chinesa Rusch has been a poll worker since 2020. Amid increasing threats to poll workers over election denial conspiracies, she's worried for the safety of herself and her coworkers.

Attacks on poll workers have been on the rise since 2020. One local election worker is afraid that four years of conspiracy theories and harmful rhetoric are putting her in danger — and she’s not alone.

Chinesa Rusch has always loved elections. When she was 12 years old, her aunt took her door knocking for a candidate. Rusch, 34, began volunteering on campaigns as soon as possible — she says she was more excited to turn 18 and vote than she was to turn 21.

So in 2020 when election boards were having a hard time getting poll workers for the general election, Rusch thought it was a no-brainer to get involved. She’s been a ballot judge for every election since.

Rusch has never felt in danger until now. The increase in conspiracy theories about stolen elections and poll workers’ alleged hand in fraud scares her. She’s not alone. Nearly 1 in 3 election officials have been harassed, abused or threatened since the 2020 election.

“Now that there have been four years of this rhetoric, people have had time to plan,” Rusch said. “Someone could come to Election Day with the intention to do harm to, in their minds, protect their vote. That possibility of violence surrounding our elections was never something that I perceived as a possibility before 2020.”

As the election nears, Rusch thinks about the stories of poll workers like Ruby Freeman and Shay Moss who were threatened and had mobs show up at their home after Rudy Guiliani and other Trump allies falsely accused them of helping steal the election. Rusch worries that the violence will only become more prevalent throughout the 2024 election.

Threats to election workers dramatically increased immediately after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and began spreading election conspiracies. The mostly private workers who give one day of their time to run elections were getting doxed and facing death threats, abuse and harassment.

In 2021, the U.S. Attorney General’s office sent a memo to all federal prosecutors about the “significant increase in the threat of violence” to election workers. The harassment amounted to “a threat to democracy” and the Attorney General’s office formed a task force to prosecute people who made or carried out threats against election workers. But in three years, the task force has prosecuted fewer than 20 people.

The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, estimates that 1.5 election officials per day will have quit their positions between November 2020 and 2024. And 45 percent of survey respondents said they fear for their safety and the safety of others.

Still, Rusch can’t imagine quitting. She sees herself and her fellow poll workers as a vital part of democracy.

“I feel like it's my civic duty to keep doing it as long as they'll have me,” Rusch said. “I'm a little nervous, but at the end of the day, it's way more important for me to make sure that our elections work the way that they should.”

A sandwich board sign features an American flag and says "Vote here." Pasted on a window behind it is a sign for the Kansas City Election Board.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
/
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Election Board posts security officers at many of its polling locations on Election Day. Local law enforcement and emergency responders also give preference to emergencies that may happen at polling locations.

Increased security in Kansas City elections

Lauri Ealom, the Democratic director of the Kansas City Election Board, says her team is doing everything they can to protect workers. The KCEB keeps armed security posted at most voting locations. The officers accompany poll workers to their cars if they feel unsafe and are available to respond immediately to safety concerns before additional law enforcement arrives.

Local law enforcement and emergency workers are aware of each polling location and patrol near those areas. On Election Day, poll workers get preferential treatment in an emergency. Ealom says the election board has other security measures to protect election workers that are not disclosed to the public to further protect poll workers.

“I don't think any of us signed up to have to look over our shoulders,” Ealom said. “It gets really difficult to, on the exterior, remain unmoved by the rants and the shouts and the threats. It’s something I think about every day. Not until November’s over do I really think that I’ll have a good night’s rest.”

Ealom herself was assaulted in 2020 by someone who had a complaint about a candidate running for Jackson County Sheriff. After the attack, Ealom received a folder of threatening notes cut out from a magazine. Her assailant was never charged. Ealom has heard that they have since been to Union Station, KCEB’s old headquarters, multiple times looking for her.

“I have had rose colored glasses on in the way that I look at people from the community,” Ealom said. “Unfortunately, this has conditioned me to see them as a potential threat. I'm a free spirit, so that definitely hinders me being truly who I am. It's changed who I am a lot.”

Three people sitting at desks surrounded by cardboard blinders that read "Vote."
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Violence against election workers has been rising since 2020. That trend is leading to high turnover of poll workers and increased security during elections.

A bill introduced in the Missouri Legislature in 2023 and re-introduced this year would have made it a crime to tamper with, harass, dox or intimidate an election official. It stalled in the House of Representatives.

In the absence of action from the statehouse, Ealom says the KCEB is working to pass an ordinance with the Kansas City Council to protect poll workers during what is sure to be a contentious election. The ordinance would punish aggression against election workers. It will be heard by the Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee July 16.

Every poll worker must also go through mandatory training with the KCEB before each election. Part of that training includes what to do in case of an emergency. In years past, that focused on fire or water emergencies. But Rusch says recent trainings have focused on active shooters or someone inciting violence.

Rusch is comforted by the extra security, law enforcement and training, but with resources spread so thin in election offices and the threat of violence increasing, she isn’t sure anything will be enough.

“The thing that would make me feel most safe during election days would be if this rhetoric would stop and if people in positions of power would stop screaming about how elections have been compromised,” Rusch said. “After four years of this rhetoric, I feel like if you're planning to do something terrible that's not going to stop anybody.”

A close up photo of a shirt that says "Vote like your rights depend on it."
Savannah Hawley-Bates
/
KCUR 89.3
Chinesa Rusch thinks that anyone skeptical about how elections are run should volunteer to work one to see how secure they are.

What it’s like to work the polls

Part of the reason poll workers are the subject of conspiracy theories, Rusch thinks, is that people don’t know much about how the voting process works. Rusch says the it's pretty straightforward.

All poll workers certify that the ballot box has arrived empty before the election begins and that it has all the ballots, with no duplicates, at the end of the night. The box is locked during voting hours. When people come in to vote, poll workers check their IDs and sign the ballot to certify that it's correct. After polling places close, all the ballots are taken to the KCEB office to be counted.

Everyone is partnered with someone from either the Democratic or Republican party. Both are involved in every step of the process. Rusch said after people get their ballot, she doesn’t care who they choose.

Rusch’s challenge to people who don’t trust the election process is simple: come work it and see how many checks are at play to keep elections secure.

“You don't work a day that long that starts that early if you don't care about the process,” Rusch said. “Everyone who works elections comes from super different backgrounds. We all have our own super different political ideologies, but all of that gets checked at the door. The idea that we're all in on this big conspiracy to take people's right to vote away is very absurd.”

Corrected: July 5, 2024 at 10:34 AM CDT
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that an ordinance in Kansas City Council to protect poll workers had not yet been introduced.
When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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