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Amid threats and misinformation, election officials call for more protection

election worker safety
Posted at 12:22 PM, Mar 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-09 09:38:13-05

Since she first took office as Detroit City Clerk in 2005, Janice Winfrey’s job has changed and so has her life.

“I think about it daily, unfortunately. I didn’t use to, but I think about it daily," said Winfrey.

She's experienced face-to-face threats while overseeing Detroit's election process.

In the weeks after the 2020 Presidential Election, she says a man approached her on a walk near her home.

"He comes up to me, ‘Miss Winfrey where you been? I’ve been trying to get in touch with you,’" Winfrey recalled the man saying. "He just comes at me and, ‘Why did you allow Trump to lose? Why did you cheat? You’re going to pay for that.’"

She's also received threats through social media and on her cell phone.

The threats are why this public official, who is also a mother and grandmother, now lives prepared…just in case.

“I carry a weapon. I carry a gun. I do. I carry a gun. I carry mace at all times," Winfrey said. “We’re not a family of guns. We don’t, we just never owned one right. My children were very concerned, young adults, very concerned, and I even thought about quitting.”

While Winfrey is staying in office, she won reelection in 2021 and is running for a seat in Congress this year, many of her colleagues nationwide have left.

“A lot. I spoke to another election administrator in another state, and she might stick around for another year. We’re seeing in Michigan, we’re seeing clerks resign, retire, who weren’t going to retire for a couple more years," said Ingham County, Michigan Clerk Barb Byrum.

Several states, including Michigan, have seen clerks resign or retire from their positions since the 2020 election. In Pennsylvania, about a third of county election officials have left in the last year and half, with heavy workloads and misinformation as reasons why.

Byrum says in the past couple of years, she's had to push back more against misinformation about the election process.

She worries empty clerk positions will be filled by people motivated to see their party win.

Byrum says along with the pandemic, the current political climate makes it difficult to find enough people to work the polls on election days.

“We’ve forgotten how to be neighbors and work with each other when we don’t agree, and we’ve seen that spill out to our polling locations and as a result, less precinct workers," Byrum explained.

She says more needs to be done to protect election workers.

Bills have been proposed in several states, including in Michigan, Colorado, and Washington that would create stiffer penalties for threatening or interfering with an election official.

Winfrey says there will be increased security at the municipal building during this year’s midterm elections.

“Our entire building has been--windows have been replaced with something that is shatterproof or bulletproof, upgraded security cameras in and outside of this building, as well as where we count the absentee ballots. We’ll have a security check-in much like the airports where go through a security device,” Winfrey said.

While those measures may be a sign of the times, Winfrey wants people to continue to hold faith in the system and those entrusted with keeping it safe.

“We have no magic powers. We get one vote just like you get, but we administer the process, and that process gets lots of checks and balances," Winfrey said.