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Violent Threats Targeting 2020 Election Officials Continue

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Earlier in the program, we heard about efforts underway in Congress to pass a voting bill. Now we're going to focus on the people who actually oversee the voting process in this country. And that's because many are speaking out about the violent and disturbing threats they've received and continue to receive months after the 2020 election.

According to a report from The Brennan Center for Justice out earlier this week, 1 in 3 election officials say they feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly 1 in 5 list threats to their life as a job-related concern. Election officials are also facing threats within government. As reported by The Brennan Center, in many states, party leaders have censured election officials who defended the 2020 election as secure and reliable. And in some places, state legislatures have taken steps to strip election officials of their power.

We're going to focus now on the experience of one of those officials, Al Schmidt. He's a city commissioner of Philadelphia, a Republican in his third term of running the city's elections. Commissioner Schmidt joins us now. Welcome to the program.

AL SCHMIDT: Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: I want to start out with what the past seven months or so have been like for you. For those who may not know, you and your family have received numerous death threats, some horrific emails that were sent to your wife. And I want to say these are disturbing. But just to give a sense of what you've gone through, I want to read part of one. It said, Albert RINO Schmidt will be fatally shot. It called for, quote, "heads on spikes" and described your family as treasonous and included photos of your home, as I understand. Another message listed the names of your children.

What has this been like? I mean, how do you and your family begin to cope with something like this?

SCHMIDT: Well, this is probably my 10th or 11th major election that I've overseen. And the 2020 general election was unlike any other. And typically, during an election, you have campaigns compete against other campaigns. Candidates attack other candidates. And really, what we had this last presidential election was campaigns and candidates, or one in particular, attacking the election officials. Referees are not usually tackled. And that's essentially what we saw this last time.

MCCAMMON: And I want to note that this was happening, of course, right up to the top. In November 2020, former President Trump referred to you specifically as a RINO or Republican in name only. He mentioned you in a tweet and he said you were being used, quote, "big time by the fake news media to explain how honest things were with respect to the election in Philadelphia. We win." You know, as a Republican, how do you make sense of the fact that these threats are often coming from extremely prominent members of your own party?

SCHMIDT: Well, that's really when the threats started coming in a more specific form. So earlier on, the threats were general threats against us as election officials in Philadelphia. It was after that point that they started mentioning me by name. I was receiving texts. My wife on her work email was receiving threats, and they were very detailed. And they were mainly focused on our children.

So if the whole point of all of this is intimidation, then it sort of makes sense that they went about doing this the way that they did because, obviously, I couldn't be home. My wife and kids had to leave our home and go to a different place. We had security detail around the clock with police detectives.

So it's strange for me - not only that any of this would be happening at all 'cause it's awful but it is coming from my own party. And I'm not the only one, obviously, who experienced it. I'm just one of many election officials across the country who experienced it. And some of the worst of it seems to be targeted at Republicans, like the secretary of state of Georgia and like some others.

MCCAMMON: Can you help us understand how we got here? I mean, maybe that sounds like an obvious question. But is it just down to President Trump, or did you see this coming?

SCHMIDT: So there's two things. So in a very parochial sense, in Philadelphia, we definitely saw it coming. Around a month or two before the election, the president started - and his sort of associates started tweeting it on social media and elsewhere about Philadelphia. And then in the one debate, the president said bad things happened in Philadelphia. You had Newt Gingrich saying we should send in the military to run the election in Philadelphia. Like, there was - we could definitely see it coming as the biggest city in the biggest swing state in the United States.

You know, the former president didn't create this environment. He exploited it. So there was already something there to exploit. And I don't know if it's because of a stratification for people drawing information from different sources, unreliable sources, in - misinformation and disinformation, but there was definitely an environment that was already there that he was able to exploit.

MCCAMMON: I know it's your job fundamentally to oversee vote counting. But as somebody who's thinking about this a lot and has been personally affected by it, do you think there's a solution here? And what about protecting those election officials and election workers at all levels who are doing this work? What steps should or could be taken?

SCHMIDT: The recent Brennan Center report included a really very good section on the need to protect election administrators across the country for when these threats happen. So at the local level, it's about making them sort of physically secure. At the federal level, it's really about information sharing and intelligence sharing so that the people making these threats can be identified, investigated and if warranted, prosecuted at the end of the day.

Just, you know, on the - on a personal level, you know, you end up - every move you make, you're shadowed by, you know, police detectives. We had to install a really comprehensive security system at our home. And that was about, you know, like, a month's salary. And I'm sure a lot of election officials can't afford that. So I think there's a couple steps that can be...

MCCAMMON: And that was out of your pocket?

SCHMIDT: Yes, yeah. I'm sure there are steps that can be taken both to maybe assist election officials when this does occur with improving the, you know, physical security of their homes. But, you know, it's strange. I hear myself talk, and all this just seems so completely unthinkable and absurd that anyone whose job it is to just simply count voters' votes in a democracy would have to install cameras and install a security system and be shadowed by security.

MCCAMMON: That was Al Schmidt, city commissioner of Philadelphia. Thank you so much for joining us.

SCHMIDT: Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: And stay safe.

SCHMIDT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.