NATIONAL NEWS

Election staff abruptly quits, upending rural Texas county

Aug 22, 2022, 3:27 PM
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 01: People vote at the Carver Branch Library on March 1, 2022 in Austin, Texas. ...
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 01: People vote at the Carver Branch Library on March 1, 2022 in Austin, Texas. Today Texans are headed to the polls to vote in the states first primary of the 2022 midterm election season. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

FREDERICKSBURG , Texas (AP) — Part of why Terry Hamilton says he abruptly left his job running elections deep in Texas wine country is by now a familiar story in America: He became fed up with the harassment that followed the 2020 election.

But this was no ordinary exit.

On the brink of November’s midterm elections, it was not just Hamilton who up and quit this month but also the only other full-time election worker in rural Gillespie County. The sudden emptying of an entire local elections department came less than 70 days before voters start casting ballots.

By the middle of last week, no one was left at the darkened and locked elections office in a metal building annex off the main road in Fredericksburg. A “Your Vote Counts” poster hung in a window by the door.

A scramble is now underway to train replacements and ground them in layers of new Texas voting laws that are among the strictest in the U.S. That includes assistance from the Texas Secretary of State, whose spokesperson could not recall a similar instance in which an elections office was racing to start over with a completely new staff. But the headaches don’t stop there.

The resignations have more broadly made the county of roughly 27,000 residents — which overwhelmingly backed former President Donald Trump in 2020 — an extraordinary example of the fallout resulting from threats to election officials. Officials and voting experts worry that a new wave of harassment or worse will return in November, fueled by false claims of widespread fraud.

Hamilton, who has clashed with poll watchers in Gillespie County in past elections, said he didn’t want to go through it again.

“That’s the one thing we can’t understand. Their candidate won, heavily,” Hamilton said. “But there’s fraud here?”

He declined to discuss the nature of the threats in a phone interview, referring questions to the county attorney, who did not respond to a phone message. Gillespie County Sheriff Buddy Mills said neither his department nor police in Fredericksburg had received information about threats from elections officials.

Hamilton worked under Anissa Herrera, the former county elections administrator whose resignation was first reported by the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post. “I was threatened, I’ve been stalked, I’ve been called out on social media,” she told the outlet. “And it’s just dangerous misinformation.”

The departures pile on the examples across the U.S. of how death threats, harassment and unfounded accusations have driven local election officials from their jobs. Citing the potential effect on democracy, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a task force last year to address rising threats against election officials.

They are familiar to many election workers in Texas, which has been at the vanguard of a Republican campaign nationwide to tighten election laws in response to Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Supporters are easy to find in Gillespie County, a popular getaway to booming vineyards and vacation rentals in the scenic Texas Hill Country, which is a short day trip from the state’s liberal capital in Austin but separated by a gulf politically. In 2020, Trump won the county with nearly 80% of the vote.

But the resignations surprised Mo Saiidi, chairman of the Gillespie County GOP, who said recent elections had run smoothly. Hamilton said run-ins with poll watchers traced back to 2020 but said other issues weighed on the office, including what he contended was a lack of support from the county. He also recently decided to run as a write-in candidate for county treasurer, which he said required him to step down.

Saiidi believes funding played a role. “They had some differences and they couldn’t come to a closure, and they decided in frustration to just quit,” said Saiidi, who also serves on the county’s election commission.

A survey released in March by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that one in three election officials knows someone who has left a job in part because of threats and intimidation, and that one in six had experienced threats personally.\

In Texas alone, at least 37 election administrators since the 2020 election have left what were previously stable positions, said Trudy Hancock, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, citing a presentation she had seen. There are 254 counties in Texas, not all of which have dedicated election administration offices.

Threats are not all that’s making the job tougher in Texas. A sweeping new voting law gives wide latitude to partisan poll watchers and threatens election workers with criminal charges for denying them access. The same law put new restrictions on mail voting but made a messy debut during Texas’ first-in-the-nation primary in March, when more 23,000 mail ballots were discarded outright as voters struggled to navigate the new rules.

It underscores the challenges a new staff will face getting up to speed under a time crunch. For now, Saiidi said the county clerk and tax assessor have been discussed as possible fills-in.

Hancock, who is also the elections administrator in Brazos County, said her workers could previously take angry calls as voters blowing off steam. “But in this climate and the things that go on now, we have to take everything serious and at face value,” she said.

Less than 24 hours after the office in Gillespie County officially cleared out, the resignations were front of mind at a pavilion in Fredericksburg, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke had swung through in his campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

Roger Norman, 60, felt the election was still in good hands but called threats a pattern of intimidation. Outside, at a counter rally of Trump supporters, welder Abel Salazar said he had no concerns with elections in the heavily conservative county and that interest in poll watching was high.

“There are a lot of people that have been volunteering,” Salazar, 53, said.

Hamilton said deadlines in his old office are already creeping up.

“They didn’t think we did anything,” he said. “Now they get to see what we did.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol on F...
Colleen Long and Chris Megerian, Associated Press

Biden urges unity at prayer breakfast under new management

President Joe Biden attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday in Washington and delivered a message of unity.
12 hours ago
FILE: Groundhog handler AJ Derume holds Punxsutawney Phil, who saw his shadow, predicting a late sp...
Associated Press

Phil’s Groundhog Day prediction: 6 more weeks of winter

A furry critter in a western Pennsylvania town has predicted six more weeks of winter during an annual Groundhog Day celebration.
12 hours ago
Law enforcement officers aim their weapons at a home during a standoff in Grants Pass, Ore., on Tue...
Associated Press

Oregon kidnapping suspect dies of self-inflicted gunshot

The suspect in a violent kidnapping in Oregon has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
1 day ago
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference after a Federal Open M...
Christopher Rugaber, AP Economics Writer

Fed lifts rate by quarter-point and signals more hikes ahead

The Federal Reserve extended its fight against high inflation Wednesday by raising its key interest rate by a quarter-point, its eighth hike since March.
1 day ago
Six-year-old Mason Stonehouse was playing on his dad’s phone before bedtime and spent about $1,00...
CNN

Michigan six-year-old orders $1,000 worth of food on Grubhub

A six-year-old as playing on his dad's phone before bedtime and spent about $1,000 on Grubhub orders.
1 day ago
FILE - U.S. Secret Service agents are seen in front of Joe Biden's Rehoboth Beach, Del., home on Ja...
Eric Tucker, Colleen Long and Zeke Miller, Associated Press

Biden lawyer: FBI finds no classified docs at beach house

The Federal Bureau of Investigation searched President Joe Biden's vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on Wednesday without finding any classified documents, the president's personal attorney said.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Election staff abruptly quits, upending rural Texas county