While workers were counting ballots for primary elections in August, the elections office in King County, Washington, received a suspicious envelope that turned out to contain trace amounts of fentanyl.
It happened again this week, and not just in Washington state, where the office was processing ballots from the general election and had to be evacuated. Election offices in at least five states were sent threatening mail, some containing the potentially deadly drug, authorities say.
Authorities were working to intercept any additional letters still in the mail system, including one bound for Atlanta’s Fulton County, the largest voting jurisdiction in one of the nation’s most important presidential swing states. Officials said Friday afternoon the letter sent to the Georgia office had been located.
The letters were just the latest worrisome disruption for election workers in Seattle and across the country who have been besieged by threats, harassment and intimidation since the 2020 presidential election.
“There’s certainly a toll that occurs emotionally and mentally with our elections administrators, and it’s devastating,” said Julie Wise, the King County elections director. “But we’re not going to be paused or impacted by these individuals who clearly want to break us.”
Election offices have been understaffed for years, and the pandemic-related challenges before the 2020 vote and the hostility afterward driven by false claims of a stolen election have led to a wave of retirements and resignations. Those who remain are tired and worried – and yet determined to do everything they can to conduct a safe and secure election next year.
King County was one of at least four counties in Washington with election offices that were evacuated this week after they received envelopes containing suspicious powders — including two that field-tested positive for fentanyl — while workers were processing ballots from Tuesday’s election.
Authorities say suspicious letters also were sent to election offices in four other states: Georgia, Nevada, California and Oregon – with some being intercepted before they were delivered. Four of the letters sent to offices in the five states contained fentanyl, according to a memo Thursday to election officials from the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Election officials are confronting the new reality of having the overdose-reversal drug naloxone on hand as a precaution. Fulton County has been the target of conspiracy theories since the 2020 election, and its election workers have been harassed and threatened over false claims that they were stuffing ballots to aid Democrats.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top election official and a Republican, said his office had alerted all 159 of its counties of the possible threat. In speaking about the seriousness of the threat, he noted one of his sons died of a fentanyl overdose about five years ago.
“We want to make sure our workers in the Fulton County election office are safe,” Raffensperger said. “We know how deadly this stuff is.”
Fentanyl, an opioid that can be 50 times as powerful as the same amount of heroin, is driving an overdose crisis as it is pressed into pills or mixed into other drugs — though briefly touching it cannot cause an overdose and researchers have found that the risk of fatal overdose from accidental exposure is low.
Just a few months ago, election workers in Ingham County, Michigan, were trained in using naloxone out of concern that something like this week’s occurrences could happen, Clerk Barb Byrum said. She is confident her team is doing everything it can to keep workers safe but knows there are no guarantees given the vitriol displayed by some voters and combustibility of false election claims.
“We shouldn’t have to live in fear of opening letters, which we get thousands per week, especially during elections,” Byrum said. “This flagrant attempt to interfere with democracy has gone far beyond one person. It has metastasized everywhere.”
Recruiting enough people to assist with elections, including poll workers and temporary or part-time staff, already was a challenge for the nation’s 10,000 voting jurisdictions before the hostility that has emerged since the 2020 election. The current environment has only made the task harder.
“A smooth Election Day happens in large part to these people coming back election after election and bringing their knowledge and training with them,” said Ryan Ronco, clerk in Placer County, California. “In an era when it’s getting harder and harder to find people willing to volunteer for anything, whether that’s joining the Rotary club or being a Little League coach or any number of things, people who were already on the fence about serving will likely opt out rather than opt in.”
Meanwhile, the exodus of some top local election officials has the potential to create a vacuum of institutional knowledge, raising concerns that inexperience could lead to mistakes that could later be twisted by conspiracy theorists.
Some politically important states are seeing significant staff turnover. In Pennsylvania, officials estimate 40 of the state’s 67 county election offices have new directors or deputy directors since 2020. In Nevada, election directors in 11 of 17 counties will be overseeing their first presidential election next year, while in Arizona at least 12 of 15 counties have lost at least one top election official.
In North Carolina, where Republican lawmakers recently moved to gain more control of state and local election boards, roughly a third of 100 county election directors have left since the 2020 election.
Kim Wyman, the former secretary of state in Washington, said election workers are worn down from the harassment they have received in the past few years but are focused on ensuring an accessible and secure election.
“At best, these letters are another reminder that there are people willing to intimidate election officials and make them question whether their job is worth the risk,” Wyman said. “At worst, a bad actor is going to injure or kill somebody for just doing their job.”
Nationally, the harassment of election workers has drawn the attention of Congress, state lawmakers and law enforcement. Lawmakers in several states have increased criminal penalties for those who threaten election workers, and the Justice Department has formed a task force that has charged more than a dozen people across the country.
Former election officials say it’s imperative that people are arrested and prosecuted for threats.
“Getting to the bottom of what happened and holding those accountable who threaten or endanger the lives of our election officials is critical to helping prevent and mitigate threats moving forward,” said Liz Howard, a former Virginia election official now at the Brennan Center for Justice’s elections and government program.
About 1 in 5 election workers knows someone who left their election job for safety reasons, and about 70% of local election officials said harassment has increased, according to a Brennan Center survey.
Wise, who has worked in elections for 23 years, said she and others who work in the King County election offices are resilient and dedicated to the nonpartisan work of running elections. She emphasized that the threatening letters have only stiffened their resolve.
“It lit a fire underneath us,” she said.
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