Army intelligence veteran James Hardaway retired in 2021 after 27 years. Yet his service continues: this election season, he’s working the polls.

Hardaway just completed his poll worker training as a computer technician in Wake County where he will process voters in all different scenarios—such as registering and certifying them—as they enter the polling locations.

“I actually felt more confident after the training than I did going in,” Hardaway says “Numerous times throughout the day there were comments from the trainers about how we were to remain nonpartisan.”

He found the job well suited for veterans like him.

“It’s kind of well within our wheelhouse,” Hardaway says. “The vast majority of veterans that I know are apolitical and nonpartisan and are able to—whatever their political leanings or beliefs are—keep those at bay, and not let those sorts of ideas influence how they do this job. Veterans are absolutely well equipped to do this.”

Hardaway decided to sign up after hearing the call for election officials from the campaign Vet the Vote, a project of the nonpartisan nonprofit organization We the Veterans, a group founded to organize veterans and military members around democracy building at home. Once retired, Hardaway relocated back to Cary and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in education at North Carolina State University. The focus of his thesis is media literacy, grounded in his interest in combating misinformation and disinformation. He found We the Veterans through this work.

The past few election cycles have seen widespread misinformation and disinformation propagated concerning the integrity of the election process. These narratives strain local boards of elections attempting to administer safe elections and retain poll workers. Initiatives like Vet the Vote are finding ways to counter untrue narratives, such as Donald Trump’s “Big Lie,” and restore trust in elections. The specific campaign aims to remedy the twofold problem of a staffing shortage and declining faith in elections by recruiting veterans and military family members as election workers.

Vet the Vote is focused on its goal of recruiting 100,000 election officials nationwide. This new roster of election officials presents the special opportunity to educate individuals on the process of administering elections and in doing so, override conspiracies and distrust by leading citizens to the understanding that the process is free and fair.

As of October 7, the campaign has reported the registration of 60,000 individuals via their website. Over 2,900 of those have registered in North Carolina, says Ingrid Sundlee, Vet the Vote’s director of civic engagement.

“Once we were able to get the VA, to talk about Vet the Vote, and importantly, the need for poll workers across the country, the veteran and military family community proved exactly what we’ve been saying,” says Christa Sperling, the Asheville-based co-founder of Vet the Vote. “They signed up in droves to support this and to support their communities.”

Individuals can sign up to be an election official on the Vet the Vote website, which in North Carolina directs interested poll workers to the 2022 Democracy Heroes form. The form requires applicants to indicate their name, county, registration, and mailing and physical address as well as some preferences concerning shifts.

Most importantly, poll workers are distinct from poll observers who are designated by respective county parties. Poll workers administer elections, and are to remain neutral during their training and work.

In North Carolina, a WRAL news poll from earlier this month found that only 39 percent of 677 likely voters in the state have full confidence that their votes will be counted accurately.

“There is more attention on election processes than ever, at least partly due to rampant mis- and disinformation,” says Patrick Gannon, public information director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE).

“The state board and county boards of elections are focused intently on conducting the 2022 general election,” he continues, “implementing tried and true processes and procedures that work to ensure every eligible voter’s ballot counts.”

For co-founder Sperling, an Air Force veteran, the initiative’s focus on veterans is an organic fit due to their propensity for service. 

The veteran community, too, has been preyed on by groups spreading mis- and disinformation.

“The veteran community isn’t any more vulnerable to misinformation than the rest of society, but they are targeted by bad actors who seek to disrupt our democratic processes/sow division because their voices tend to lend credibility,” Sperling says via email.

Sperling says she believes that the campaign has the potential to not only restore trust among veterans, but also among the general public.

“[Veterans] are  one of the most trusted groups in the United States and also they are geographically diverse,” she explains. “They are diverse, just generally as a group coming from all walks of life.”

Sperling says that the campaign is pushing civics, not politics. She hopes what starts as a campaign will cement as a new civic norm and way for this community to continue defending democracy.

“Those are two different things,” Sperling says. “Civics is really about knowing how your government works and how the process works, and getting involved in your local community, at every level. That’s really what we’re trying to instill by this Vet the Vote campaign.”

To Hardaway, who is registered as an independent, it’s clear that the veteran community is targeted by political agendas and those spreading mis- and disinformation.

A survey conducted in 2019 by the Vietnam Veterans of America found evidence of this both during and after the 2016 elections. The study “documented persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American servicemembers, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy.”

And those attacks, Hardaway believes, are still a threat.

“There are organizations out there—militias, alt-right groups—who target us because we bring a certain brand to the table,” Hardaway explains. “And at the same time, we are potentially vulnerable to misinformation.”

Hardaway says that veterans have both skill sets and perceived political leanings that bad actors capitalize on.

“People think that because we participated or were part of the military for so long, that we lean to one political party or another … people tend to take advantage of those leanings,” Hardaway says.

“If you look at the people who have been indicted for the January 6 crimes and in the Capitol, a large portion of those people had ties to alt-right groups or organizations,” he says. “If you dig into those reports that were released recently, they’ve recruited from and target specifically the veteran community.”

Hardaway says that a lot of extremist organizations are seeking skill sets that veterans have honed over years.

“That could be anything from knowing how to use weapons and explosives to basic leadership skills, organizational skills, public speaking skills, public affairs,” he says. “All these skills can be found in the military, and are honed over years of training. If these extremist organizations can get people who have those skills into their groups, then they save a ton of time and effort trying to train [for those] skills, as we can bring those and go to work immediately.”

Gannon says that he has not received reports of particular counties that are still in need of poll workers.

Last election cycle, in 2020, the North Carolina Board of Elections (NCSBE) actually won an award for recruiting, retaining, and training poll workers through their Democracy Heroes campaign that also called on citizens to staff the polls.

But this season, a number of counties are dealing with distrust in elections. In September and October, counties have reported that their local boards of elections officials are already strained responding to election equipment misinformation, as reported by North Carolina Public Radio and NC Policy Watch.

Nationally, one out of five local election officials reported their intent to retire from their duties by the 2024 Presidential Election, citing attacks on election systems by political leaders as well as intensified stress, according to a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Wake County Board of Elections, despite being equipped with enough poll workers for the upcoming elections, reported a cascade of intimidation, threats, and a deluge of public records requests.

Surry County has also reported problems with election deniers specifically concerned about voting  machinery. In April, Reuters reported, Michella Huff, director of the Surry County Board of Elections, was threatened with termination by Surry County GOP leader William Keith Senter for refusing to allow him to illegally access election equipment to confirm conspiracies of fraud.

Huff said that although individuals have stopped demanding access to machinery, they do continue attending Surry County Board of Commissioners meetings to demand the removal of certain voting machines like the DS200 and electronic poll books.

As of October 7, Huff noted, the county’s last scheduled election official training went by without filling all necessary poll worker positions. Surry County still needs 15 more poll workers.

Angie Harrison, the deputy director of the Surry County Board of Elections, said that part of the challenge has been rejecting interested candidates who fail the county’s non-partisan screening process.

“You just have to be a little more cautious as to whether or not there’s a partisan agenda,” Harrison said.

That is where Hardaway and Sperling say they believe veterans can step in, if not for this election cycle, then in the future.

For now, nationally and regionally as the push continues, Sperling is hopeful that they can meet their goal of 100,000 newly registered veteran poll workers by November.

“Over the last several months, we’ve been really kind of bootstrapping it as an organization and just trying, you know, finding ways to reach this community,” Sperling says. “We know that if we put out the call, veterans and military family members will answer it. They will serve their communities.”

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