Last month, Republican lawmakers scored a major victory in their years-long campaign to restrict voting rights when the NC Supreme Court ruled in favor of gerrymandering, voter ID, and a law that denies parolees their right to vote.
Meanwhile, these same lawmakers are ignoring the fact that the only legitimate attacks on elections are coming from within their own political party.
Ever since the 2020 election, when former president Donald Trump falsely declared that the results were rigged, claims that election results are illegitimate have been on the rise.
In 2022, several prominent North Carolina Republicans who denied or cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election, including U.S. Senator Ted Budd, were elected to office. This year, two members of the Surry County Board of Elections were dismissed from their posts after refusing to certify local elections in November.
“From the 2020 election and even into the 2022 election, [we see this] continued disinformation about the election process itself,” says Katelin Kaiser, a voting rights lawyer for the Southern Coalition of Social Justice, “[like] voters receiving calls that Election Day is not today or that they need to turn in their absentee ballot on a day that’s not Election Day.”
For the past few years, local boards of elections have also been under heightened scrutiny. Some election workers have received threats, while others have been assaulted by so-called poll watchers. Gary Sims, who has served as the director of the Wake County Board of Elections for eight years and is set to retire at the end of this month, can attest to the phenomenon personally.
“The world we live in has changed when it comes to elections,” says Sims, who has been in the business for more than 20 years. “After 2020, who would have thought? I had to call the police on somebody for trying to break down the front door of my house. I have an armed officer every day in my office. We have to get our board members now to park behind barbed-wire fences when they come to board meetings.”
In the meantime, the elections department has also been swamped with public records requests, mostly from extreme conservatives who have outright stated on websites or social media that their goal is to impede the work of election officials.
“[The requests] are intentionally designed to bog down elections people,” Sims says. “We have a network that follows and monitors their Telegram groups and conspiracy websites. That’s where they say, ‘OK, here’s our next action item. Start plastering your county boards with this.’”
“People are basically copying and pasting these public records requests,” Sims adds. “It’s not a matter of ‘Hey, can you send me this?’ It’s just so voluminous, what they’re asking for, and you can’t get to the next record because you’re still dealing with the one you got. We see five or six pop up in one day sometimes.”
The intent of these requests is “absolutely” obstructive, Sims says. Many of them are mapped out by conspiracy theorists like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who is infamous for denying the results of the 2020 election. (Lindell is now being sued for defamation by Dominion Voting Systems and has been ordered to pay $5 million in an election fraud challenge with which he has so far refused to comply.)
The influx of public records requests—which in Wake County grew from 16 in 2018 to 60 in 2020 and 171 in 2022—has had the intended effect. Managing these requests has become a full-time job, prompting Wake County to hire a new public records coordinator last year, Danner McCulloh.
“There’s so much that goes into administering [elections], and just receiving all these requests every day, whether they’re small or large, we have to keep everything on track,” McCulloh says. “It does take a team.”
How to run an election
Conspiracy theorists and disinformation aren’t the only new challenges elections administrators are facing. Elections changed drastically during the COVID pandemic, when staff had to figure out how to get people to the polls safely, and again after the pandemic subsided, when the rates of early voting and mail-in ballots skyrocketed.
In 2020, 83.6 percent of the 5.5 million North Carolinians who voted did so either early or by mail. That’s a big jump over the roughly 66 percent of voters who voted early or by mail during the 2016 general election. And the trend has continued. In 2022, the majority of North Carolina voters (58 percent) continued to vote early or by mail. That’s slightly more than the 54 percent of voters who voted early or by mail in 2018.
Those jumps don’t come without cost. With inflation on the rise, Wake County manager David Ellis recently estimated that the Wake County Board of Elections will spend an additional $32,000 during the 2024–25 fiscal year to mail out absentee ballots and other voter materials. The cost of running elections is on the rise, and some county departments are struggling to keep up.
A recent report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice reveals that some county departments of elections in North Carolina have seen a “consistent decline in funding,” including Cumberland, Richmond, and Onslow Counties. Others remain underfunded in the face of growing populations, despite regular increases to their budgets.
Even Wake County, which currently has the highest election department budget in the state at $10.2 million, could use a few thousand more dollars for four or five additional staffers, according to Sims.
In terms of funding, the Wake County Board of Commissioners has been supportive of the elections department, Sims says. But he and others are still trying to get hundreds of thousands of people to the polls, produce more than 100 different types of ballots, and audit hundreds of campaign finance reports, all with about 40 full-time employees.
“We have to be very efficient in what we’re doing,” Sims says. “Once we get to election time, when we go to a seven-days-a-week operation, with 14- or 15-hour days, you want to make sure you’re not working your staff into a burnout situation. I’m not saying I’m not properly staffed, but I think if you ask anybody in any department, people … [are] the number one need.”
Wake County’s elections department “has not experienced a higher-than-average turnover rate due to burnout,” according to Sims. But the same can’t be said of other, more rural elections departments. Earlier this year, in Virginia, an entire county’s elections staff quit amid false claims of voter fraud.
Why is election funding important?
In the effort to keep elections free and fair, funding county elections departments is key. The report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice highlights a slew of practical concerns for elections directors: a need to update voting machines so they don’t fail on Election Day; a need for in-house tech support to manage the computers, printers, and other technology staff regularly use during elections; and a need for more office space.
But in addition to those practical concerns, the report also highlights larger problems, one of which is a need for livable wages for election and poll workers, according to Kaiser.
“We’re seeing this trend in North Carolina of experienced and trusted election officials leaving … because of the stress and the burden and the [fact they don’t] have a livable wage for their family and themselves,” Kaiser says.
Most elections directors also “expressed frustration at the rise of election-denier conspiracy rhetoric,” adding that “the lack of voter education exacerbates the spread of conspiracy theories,” the report states.
In the counties where elections budgets are being reduced, “that decline in funding is directly related to voter experiences,” says Kaiser. For voters, that could mean driving 45 minutes to an early voting site, waiting in long lines, casting ballots on outdated equipment, or being confused about when, where, and how to vote.
Not many people pay attention to the amount of money being given to their county board of elections, but it’s essential. Research from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice has shown a correlation between the amount of money spent on elections and voter turnout.
“We’ve seen, for example, that Onslow County actually had one of the worst voter turnouts in 2022 and they also spent the least amount of money on elections per voter,” Kaiser says.
“That ties into counties not having many voting sites … or having extremely long lines on Election Day, or not having accessible information about voting …. It creates a climate where voters feel like ‘What’s the point? This is not an easy process for me.’”
It’s to that end that the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is trying to mobilize people to advocate for more election funding, Kaiser says.
“We have people who are engaged, who are wanting to ensure that elections are free and open and transparent and participatory,” she says. “Our whole goal with doing this research … is to engage people and provide transparency. To say that there is something that we can do. We can continue to advocate for particular [budget] line items that impact the community and build a stronger understanding about why election budgets are so essential.”
If given more money, many elections directors talked about “better engaging the public through more voter outreach and education,” according to the report.
“Directors almost always mentioned their desire to launch innovative programs to encourage the public to learn more about the work of elections officials, advertise elections in public spaces, and make the entire elections process—voter registration, in-person voting, and absentee voting—more accessible for all,” the report states. “They cannot further reach the public and achieve these goals due to their lack of funding.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified David Ellis as the Wake County budget director. Ellis is the county manager.
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