Poll workers serve an essential, if usually uncelebrated, role in American democracy. Organizing and tabulating is the basic business of elections. Or, it was until 2020.
When then-President Trump refused to accept his loss and spread falsehoods about a stolen election, vote-counters were among the first people to face blowback. Poll workers endured combative protesters, threats, and harassment while completing their work. In the two years since, the Big Lie has only grown more central to the Republican brand. In next week’s election, the majority of Americans will see an election-denier on their ballot.
With America’s voting system facing a crucial pressure test, Atlantic staff writers Mark Leibovich and Tim Alberta spoke on the podcast Radio Atlantic to better understand the stakes for the 2022 midterm elections.
Joining them is Chris Thomas, an election administrator who spent nearly four decades leading the elections division in the office of Michigan’s secretary of state. He recounted his experience running Detroit’s 2020 process amid protests and conspiracy theories, and offers a warning about the “downward spiral” that may already be underway.
Listen to their conversation here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Leibovich: This is Radio Atlantic. I’m Mark Leibovich, a staff writer at The Atlantic, where I cover politics. And with me is my colleague Tim Alberta, who is also a staff writer at The Atlantic. Tim, how are you doing?
Tim Alberta: Mark, I am okay. How are you?
Leibovich: Good. Situate yourself in this time-space continuum. You are sitting in Michigan, I believe.
Alberta: That’s correct. The center of the political universe.
Leibovich: Well, the 2022 midterms are only days away. But for this episode, we’re gonna focus on the underappreciated part of every election, which is the election administrators that run them.
This is an area that Tim has done some extremely great reporting and deep dives into, particularly in Michigan, which is not only a hotly contested swing state, but also a focal point of where the country is and the tipping points that are affecting a lot of elections.
So what I would ask off the top, Tim, is—election workers. This is usually kind of the plumbing of elections, [and] we as political reporters tend to focus on the campaigns themselves. What was it that got you interested in election workers themselves and wanting to talk to them and learn more about them?
Alberta: Election-administration folks are a little bit like offensive linemen. You don’t really notice them until they do something wrong. And oftentimes, when they do something wrong, there are big and devastating consequences.
So here we are looking ahead to the midterms next week, and we’re already seeing accusations of voter fraud and enormous pressure being put on the system. And I think to understand where the system is right now and just how bad things could get, we need to rewind back to a couple of recent elections.
A major test for how we administer our elections today was back in 2000. Of course, we all remember the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots in the sheer chaos that engulfed the state of Florida, and really the entire country, with Bush v. Gore. And after that experience, we tried to clean up the system. We invested in better machines. We invested in more training for election workers, and tried to bring our system of election administration into the 21st century.
And we had a lot of success in doing that. I think the challenge we face now is much steeper. What we really face is a crisis of confidence in the public. The public no longer trusts in our elections—no matter how secure, how transparent we’ve made them. And that crisis of confidence really began with the election of Donald Trump.
News Archival [Donald Trump]: Remember: We’re competing in a rigged election. This is a rigged election, folks, okay?
Alberta: It’s easy to forget now, but even in 2016, long before he was the Republican nominee, Donald Trump was claiming that the Iowa caucuses were stolen from him.
News Archival: Trump accusing Cruz of stealing the Iowa caucuses by engaging in dirty tricks.
Alberta: He was pressuring the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party to throw out the results.
News Archival: Trump is demanding either a do-over in Iowa or that the Cruz victory there be thrown out altogether.
News Archival [Trump]: They even wanna try to rig the election at the polling booths. So many cities are corrupt, and voter fraud is very, very common.
Alberta: And of course, once he’s in office, and as the pandemic is just arriving in 2020, the president of the United States is using his bully pulpit to tell the world that this election will be stolen from him, that it will be rigged against him.
News Archival [Trump]: The only way we’re gonna lose this election is if the election is rigged; remember that. It’s the only way we’re gonna lose this election.
Alberta: And so, what I spent a lot of time doing in 2020 was just traveling around the country, meeting with local elections officials—most of them Republican partisan election officials—to try and understand from their vantage point what was happening on the ground, what Trump was inspiring in their local communities. Was there a chance that there was some sort of funny business afoot? With the pressures of conducting an election with new policies being implemented on the fly due to COVID, and huge backlogs of absentee ballots needing to be counted after the fact, was there a possibility of mass inaccuracies, if not mass fraud?
And watching these people do that work under so much pressure, under so much scrutiny, was incredibly eye-opening. To see them do that work and withstand that scrutiny and produce what the courts and what watchdog groups and what election supervisors have deemed to be one of the most transparent and secure and accurate elections we’ve ever seen is really quite remarkable given all of that context.
Leibovich: I read about the sort of siege that election workers are under, and I wonder: Why would anyone do this? You focused on one poll worker in particular who was really interesting: Chris Thomas.
Alberta: That’s right.
Chris Thomas: I’m Chris Thomas. I’ve been in election administration in the state of Michigan for 40 years.
Alberta: Almost 40 years as the director of the elections department inside the Michigan secretary of state’s office. This is a guy who’s just sort of a walking encyclopedia on all things election administration. Chris is really good at what he does, which is running elections and counting votes. He’s not a public speaker, he’s not an orator, and he’s not somebody who’s gonna send chills down your spine while he’s describing the process. However, Chris is, in my experience, one of the—if not the foremost—nonpartisan authorities on election administration in the country.
Thomas: There’s a degradation going on. And I’m not predicting that this could be the last election that any of us would see, but I am saying that each one can be a big nail in the coffin of the democracy that we have enjoyed.
Alberta: He retired prior to the 2020 election. Then the pandemic arrives in 2020, and Donald Trump starts spouting these conspiracy theories about the election being stolen from him, and Chris Thomas kind of knew that he couldn’t stay on the sidelines.
Thomas: I woke up about 4 in the morning, just flummoxed about: How are they gonna pull this election off?
Alberta: Of all assignments to accept, he accepts an assignment in the city of Detroit. And for anyone familiar with the decades of racially tinged allegations of voter fraud and attempts at voter suppression in America, Detroit might just be Exhibit A.
Chris Thomas decides to do this against a backdrop of chaos and conspiracy-theorizing and fear-mongering, not to mention new laws that had been implemented prior to the 2020 election that he knew were gonna make things very complicated on Election Day.
Thomas: We ended up with 174,000 absentee ballots. How do you move all of them through the system and get ballots to voters with enough time for them to turn them around, and then for us to count them? That was really the challenge.
News Archival: One of the reasons Donald Trump was able to win nationally in 2016 was a razor-thin margin for him in Michigan.
News Archival: When the margin in 2016 was less than 11,000 votes, you can find that margin in a lot of different places across our state.
News Archival: Polls open at 7:00 a.m. today, not just to allow people inside, but crucially, that is when we could start counting absentee ballots.
Leibovich: In 2020, many of us became familiar with a term known as the “Red Mirage.” This is essentially the idea that Republican voters—or Trump voters in 2020—would be more likely to vote on Election Day. Thus, their ballots would be counted in real time and tabulated in real time, and so the early returns would look better for Republicans.
And then as early voting and absentee voting trickled in, Democrats would gain more votes. Because they would be seen as more likely to vote not on Election Day, through early voting and absentee voting.
Alberta: And Democrats were far more likely in Michigan and elsewhere to take advantage of casting their vote absentee. But in Michigan, those absentee ballots were not allowed to be opened and counted until Election Day.
News Archival: This is that Red Mirage that we heard people talk about. The idea that certain states, and we’re seeing this in Michigan and Wisconsin right now…
News Archival: We’re not calling this fairly large Trump lead for the president, because we haven’t gotten the results from mail-in ballots and the early voting.
News Archival [Trump]: We’re winning Michigan by … I’ll tell you, I looked at the numbers … I said, “Wow, that’s a lot.” By almost 300,000 votes. And 65 percent of the vote is in.
News Archival: And so that’s what he’s trying to do here, is he’s stepping out and saying, “Look, I’m winning.” … But at the end of the day, once all those votes are counted, it may be that all those mail-in ballots go to Joe Biden, and he’s put out a false narrative that many people will now believe. That’s what’s troubling about it.
Thomas: So around midnight, most of his votes were counted. And the mirage starts to disappear by 3, 4, 5 in the morning, as the urban centers start reporting their mail-in voting. And I think by mid-morning, Biden had reached the Trump numbers and started to surpass him.
News Archival: Omar Jimenez, live for us in Detroit, really the center of the political universe at this hour because of the breaking news—which is that, as of minutes ago, Joe Biden has vaulted into the lead in the crucial swing state of Michigan.
Thomas: And of course, at this time, all the folks with their big boards on cable news were pretty certain where all the remaining votes were sitting. And they weren’t sitting in Republican strongholds.
News Archival: It isn’t a lot right now, but it is a trend we have seen over the last several hours, and it has major implications on the path to 270 electoral votes. Because we also saw this happen in Wisconsin, where Joe Biden’s clinging to a narrow lead.
Thomas: I really was not following the election. You’d hear a little bit here and there. It was mid- to late morning when people started saying: “Oh, Biden’s surpassed Trump. He moved into the lead.” And I’m thinking: Well, okay, we still have a heck of a lot of work to do here. Let’s just keep going.
Alberta: By the early afternoon hours, it’s clear that there’s no turning back. That Biden’s lead is just gonna keep growing, based on the precincts where these votes are coming out of. And that’s when things get really messy.
Thomas: Around noon, there was quite a disturbance in a hall as new challengers rolled through the door.
Alberta: That’s when the poll challengers on the Republican side turn combative and confrontational and downright hostile.
News Archival: Some of the voting challengers told us that there was not an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in this room ... It led to some shoving matches or some fighting matches.
Thomas: And then it became pretty evident, quite quickly, that we had a problem on our hands.
News Archival: The tensions in that room began when Republican poll watchers had taunted poll workers. By talking, taking off their masks, getting too close to the workers, or being even verbally aggressive.
Thomas: These folks had come in with little to no training. I think the training didn’t amount to much more than showing them where the door was to get into the hall.
Alberta: Republican leaders start spreading misinformation and using scare tactics to say they’re being locked out of the counting room, that the rules are being violated, that you need to get down to Detroit right now and make your voice heard.
Thomas: All they wanted to do was stop the vote. And they even had, you know, a few minutes of a little bit of chanting going on to stop the vote.
News Archival: [chanting] Stop the count. Stop the count.
Alberta: And the next thing you know, all hell is breaking loose inside the big downtown building called the TCF Center, where they were counting these votes in Detroit, where suddenly you’ve got people streaming into the building, banging on the windows, demanding to be let in.
News Archival: [chanting] Stop the count … This was the scene in Detroit. Protesters started banging on the windows, as you can see. Police in fact had to be called to the scene.
Alberta: Then you have poll workers inside covering up the glass. And of course, the clips of that go viral all over social media and air on Fox News. And there’s talk in real time of a cover-up happening in Detroit.
News Archival: You have video from Fox News of individuals boarding up the windows in violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
News Archival: There were some windows back here that allowed for observation that were covered up with paper and posters. That led to even more confusion and outrage, as protesters pounded on these windows demanding the ability to see inside.
Thomas: We covered the windows only because of the fear of glass breaking. There were workers in fairly close proximity to those windows. Trying to work when people are just banging on the windows—it was bizarre. I mean, these people knew they were playing to the media. But once you start explaining, you’ve already lost the moment. And it was great footage for the conspiracy folks.
News Archival: Breitbart reported on poll workers in Detroit covering windows as onlookers outside tried to watch as ballots were being counted.
News Archival [Trump]: One major hub for counting ballots in Detroit covered up the windows.
News Archival: Election workers in Detroit have been caught covering up windows at an absentee-ballot counting center, trying to prevent anyone seeing what’s happening in the vote-counting process.
Thomas: So there were times where this could have really gotten outta hand. We had some real incidents I had to step in the middle of, with many of these challengers where people were close to fisticuffs.
News Archival: Vote-challengers early on Wednesday attempted to photograph or videotape the counting process, which The Detroit Free Press reports left ballot-counters feeling intimidated.
Thomas: It was a disgraceful display. And, while they weren’t using racial terms, it was clearly a race issue in terms of what they thought was going on. It just did not smell well at all.
Alberta: And we saw this in other places around the country, like in Milwaukee or in Philadelphia, where you have an overwhelmingly Black city surrounded by overwhelmingly white suburbs. And, coincidentally or perhaps not so coincidentally, whenever there are these allegations of mass voter fraud and an election being stolen by a Democratic machine, it focuses on these Black cities.
News Archival [Trump]: Our campaign has been denied access to observe any counting in Detroit. Detroit is another place I wouldn’t say has the best reputation for election integrity.
Alberta: And the next thing you know, Detroit becomes the epicenter of election conspiracy-mongering from coast to coast.
Thomas: The Detroit police were excellent. They removed the rabble-rousers. It was an incredible sight for me. It was surreal. The next example I had of a surreal situation was sitting on my couch on January 6th.
People just thought they could let go of their emotions and do what they will, and that’s when problems happened. And I’m pleased that in Detroit, the problems did not emerge. They could have happened in that explosive a situation.
Alberta: That acting outside of the bounds of our civic norms seems to be a new normal, because here we are in 2022, heading toward Election Day 2022—and some of the behavior, some of the rhetoric, some of the political opportunism that led to the events of Election Day 2020 and the events of January 6th, 2021, are here, and they are proliferating.
Leibovich: I mean, in a weird and almost perverse way, it sounds like a triumph. Because for all that Chris endured in 2020, he is still reporting for duty next week during the midterms. Does he go into this with a sense of immense dread?
Alberta: I think, from Chris’s perspective, it can’t get any worse than it was in 2020, if for no other reason than the fact that you don’t have a single ringleader who’s at the center stirring all of this up, sort of inciting people to wage these attacks and to intimidate and to harass and to physically try to lay siege to some of these vote-counting centers.
I think in that sense, he’s not too worried. But I do think there’s a generalized dread. That the genie’s out of the bottle now, and you are going to have individuals up and down the ballot who are losing their races by comfortable margins—five, six, seven points, 10 points—who are still going to cry foul. They’re not going to concede. They’re going to say that it was stolen. I mean, you had a guy in the gubernatorial primary here in Michigan, Ryan Kelley, who lost by 25 points and refused to concede.
The cancer of election denialism has spread, and Trump has inspired copycats who are running for office all around the country. Including three statewide candidates in Michigan—for governor, for attorney general, and for secretary of state—all of whom claim that the last election was stolen.
That’s what causes him that generalized dread. Realizing that, no matter how clean an election they run, no matter how accurate the count is, no matter how transparent they are, people are still going to say that it was stolen from them. And they’re still gonna have an audience for saying that.
Thomas: You know, it’s not just the election. It’s what comes after the election. In other words: who’s elected. To my mind, the election-denier status that these candidates have is really hard to overcome. Because they have bought into a conspiracy that is not based on any facts.
And they can’t alter the way elections are run, but they can confuse things. Litigation after litigation, one case after another. If it’s always conflict, if everything that this office holder’s doing is a conflict situation, that degrades confidence at some point.
People believe something’s wrong. That’s the long-term effect. And so, does this become a downward spiral? That’s the big question. And it may well.
Alberta: And look: I can tell you, having spent the last couple of years covering this as closely as just about anyone, having talked to a lot of these people, having looked into the legal actions taken, having studied the way in which they’ve approached the question of the legitimacy of this last election, the great majority of these election-deniers who are running for office—building their campaigns on this lie that the last election was stolen—they don’t actually believe it. They don’t.
And let’s be clear: The great majority of the Republicans in Congress who voted to decertify the election results in those two states, they didn’t believe it. They did it because it was politically expedient. They did it because it was an act of self-preservation. They did it to stay on the right side of a bullying president and an angry political base.
I think almost all of them—probably all of them—categorically can say that they know how an election works. They know that some votes are counted later than others. They know that when 15 or 20 percent of the returns are in, they can’t declare victory just because they’re up three points. That’s not how any of this works. But that’s in the Before Times. 2020 in so many ways just feels like the beginning of a new era, because the old way of doing things, of respecting some of those norms and playing by some of those established rules, there’s just no benefit to it anymore.
Even if you wind up losing the election, it’s not just that claiming victory preemptively helps you fan the flames of conspiracy-theorizing and makes people think that you were cheated. It helps you raise money. It helps you stay relevant. It helps you maintain something of a political apparatus in the afterlife of losing that election.And that’s what most of these people want. There was a moment there on November 5th when Donald Trump came to speak in the White House…
News Archival [Trump]: Good evening. I’d like to provide the American people with an update on our efforts to protect the integrity of our very important 2020 election.
Alberta: …where he itemized every instance, every example of where the election had been stolen from him, and how Democrats in the deep state were sabotaging him, and basically announced to the world that America was a banana republic.
News Archival [Trump]: We were up by nearly 700,000 votes in Pennsylvania, won Pennsylvania by a lot, and uh, that gets whittled down to, I think they said now we’re up by 90,000 votes. And they’ll keep coming and coming and coming. They find them all. And they don’t want us to have any observers. They’re trying to rig an election, and we can’t let that happen. Detroit and Philadelphia, known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country…
Alberta: And I remember thinking then that this was going to have cascading generational effects. That there was just no telling how far-reaching the implications of this would be, because when any prominent powerful leader is making declarative, dramatic statements like that, people are going to listen.
But when you have a leader like Donald Trump, who had so effectively cultivated this fervent, undeviating following of people who believed him to be this sort of singular figure made for this moment in history—and frankly, for a lot of people, there are major spiritual implications wrapped up in this. This is good versus evil, and trying to bring down America as we know it.
In some sense, I’m almost relieved that it’s not worse today.
You know, January 6th was a horrible event; don’t get me wrong. But I think we also got incredibly lucky that more people didn’t die that day. If members of the Capitol Police had opened fire on some of the individuals who were assaulting them—which, by the way, some people believe would’ve been well within their rights—imagine if that had happened.
There would’ve been dozens of these rioters, maybe even more, killed at the Capitol that day. And then, what would the reaction, the retaliation to that have been? This really could have sparked a scalable civic violence that we haven’t seen in a very long time in this country.
And if we look back at just the past week, three men were convicted of plotting to kidnap the governor here in my state, Gretchen Whitmer. And of course in San Francisco, you had an apparent attempt to kidnap and torture Nancy Pelosi. This is the speaker of the House. Breaking into her personal home, finding her husband, attacking him, hitting him in the head with a hammer, knocking him unconscious, sending him to the ICU. I mean, these are just horrific events. And something I think we should take from them is that we have to be more imaginative about how bad this could get, and maybe how lucky we’ve been that it hasn’t gotten worse already. Instead of talking about foiled kidnappings, we could be talking about assassinations.
For how bad these things have been, I do think that they could have been a lot worse. And at some point our luck probably is going to run out if we’re not careful with how we navigate all of this moving forward.
Leibovich: When you wrap in both the very real issues on the ballot in this election—the abortion issue, inflation—coupled with the mechanics of elections being thrown into some doubt, what should we be mindful of as we’re looking to this day with a combination of dread and anticipation?
Alberta: One thing that really strikes me, Mark, is that voters have this astonishing ability to compartmentalize. I talk with a lot of traditionally Democratic voters about their concerns with the Republican party—the sort of extremist nativist, racist elements of the Republican party—that they find personally threatening.
They will go chapter and verse in describing that. And then effortlessly transition into why they’re going to vote Republican this fall because of the Democrats’ obliviousness to their economic concerns, as one example.
And if you broaden that out, it’s obvious in my conversations with a lot of voters, and with Democrats in contested parts of the country, that these appeals to small-d democratic norms, it doesn’t always land. It’s not that no one cares. It’s just that they don’t rank as a priority for a lot of voters.
Alberta: Even people who say that they’re really bothered by January 6th, who found it really disturbing, they’re not voting based on that. It’s almost impossible to find somebody who is. And, actually, I think the flip side of that is even you see the same thing with the abortion issue. Yes, you will see some single-issue folks on both sides of the abortion matter come out to vote because they’re really fired up.
In Michigan especially, Proposal 3 on the ballot would enshrine into the state constitution a right to an abortion. It’s very controversial. It’s very polarizing. And it’s going to drive massive turnout. But even there, you will talk to voters who are kind of tired of Democrats only talking to them about abortion. They’re really concerned that their cost of living has risen dramatically, that they can barely afford to put gas in their car, that food prices are through the roof. And they don’t know how they’re going to get by, moving forward, if these price increases continue. This is everyday stuff, and the compartmentalization that I wonder about. I’ve never really bought into this idea that we saw a couple of months ago that Democrats were staging this dramatic comeback and that they were going to defy the historical headwinds facing them.
I don’t know that this is gonna be some massive 2010-style wave that comes crashing over Washington. But it’s really hard to see in this environment how any of these Democratic appeals—be it to a woman’s right to choose, to the health and stability of our democracy, or to the election denialism that tears at the fabric of our democratic institutions—I just don’t know that any of it, even though some of it resonates with voters, I don’t know that it is ultimately what dictates the outcomes when voters step into the ballot booth.
Leibovich: I think you’re right. You know, when you’re sort of sitting where we are, what looks like cognitive dissonance really does make perfect sense. It is a perfectly reasonable—and I would say even mainstream—view for someone to be appalled by the direction of the Republican Party and also having no interest in voting for what the Democrats have served up.
One thing I’ve been saying for a number of months is: I’m putting certainty on hold until we actually have some numbers and some certifications. I don’t have a great deal of trust in polls and speculation. So, on that note, thank you for doing this, Tim. I know you’re very busy. These are crazy times, and it’s great to talk about this with some kind of … I don’t know about dread, but at least some sort of informed anticipation for what we might see in a few days, and hope for the best.
Alberta: Informed anticipation; I like it. Mark, it’s a pleasure chatting with you.