Denzell McCampbell, right, ran for Detroit city clerk in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Denzell McCampbell)
As a chemist and immigrant from Vietnam, Linh Nguyen never thought she could have a role in U.S. politics. But then Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and he “unknowingly inspired minority leaders, women of color like me, to be more actively engaged in politics,” she said.
She joined the nonpartisan League of Women Voters in DeKalb County, Illinois, where she lives with her husband and two young children, and was elected the group’s president in March 2020.
Nguyen used the role to plan voter registration drives and do voter education, but grew angry when Trump and other Republicans amplified misinformation about voting following the November presidential election. Then, earlier this year, a gunman shot and killed eight people, including six Asian American women, in the Atlanta area.
Troubled by the hateful rhetoric as well as the association of the coronavirus pandemic with Asian Americans, Nguyen decided to run as a Democrat in 2022 for clerk of DeKalb County, an elected position tasked with administering the country’s elections. She’ll face Tasha Sims, the executive assistant for the DeKalb County administration office who is being supported by the current Republican clerk, who isn’t seeking reelection.
“Before the 2016 election and before the 2020 election, nobody cared about election authorities,” Nguyen told States Newsroom. “The title is county clerk, and it’s very unattractive and boring and nobody really knew what they do. But because of what happened, we started having conversations and talking about exactly how our election process works.”
Across the United States, people concerned with protecting democracy and the integrity of elections are putting their names on the ballot for local election administrator positions in the majority of states where local election officials are elected positions.
Many say they would not have considered a campaign had it not been for the rampant misinformation after 2020 and the need for qualified people to fill the roles.
They are stepping up despite the hard work and grueling nature of the posts, which has left the pipeline for potential administrators with a shortage of people with election experience.
That shortage existed before 2020, but local election officials faced threats and harassment after the election that have driven many away from the job. An analysis by Reuters in September documented 102 threats of death or violence received by more than 40 election officials, workers and their relatives in eight battleground states. Only four people have been arrested and there have been no convictions.
“Am I scared? Yes, I’m not going to lie. I am scared,” Nguyen said about the potential for threats and harassment. “But as a minority woman, to be honest, in a room of raised hands, mine will never be picked, and I learned to look for opportunities where other people see obstacles.”
The candidates are also prepared to face proponents of Trump’s Big Lie. Allies of the former president are recruiting candidates who believe Trump won the 2020 election to state and local election offices, and advocates say they are laying the groundwork for the subversion of the democratic process in 2024.
Some candidates for local election offices like Nguyen are supported by Run for Something, an organization launched in 2017 to support young, progressive candidates in down-ballot races.
Co-founder Amanda Litman said the group has prioritized the recruitment and support of candidates for election administrator for the coming year.
“There is a critical need to protect democracy where we can control power,” Litman said. “It really matters. It’s the last chance we’ve got.”
“These are the positions that will determine whether democracy survives past 2024,” she added.
A passion for voting rights
Denzel McCampbell was born and raised in Detroit but grew up hearing stories of his mother’s childhood in Jim Crow-era Alabama. Her recollections inspired him to work on voter protection after he graduated from college.
“Voting rights has been my passion from when I was little,” said the 30-year-old director of communications for U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat.
McCampbell worked for the Michigan Election Coalition doing voter education and outreach on college campuses. In 2020, he managed a $30 million program across eight states through Progress Now to teach people about how to safely vote during a pandemic.
He also served as an elected Detroit City Charter commissioner and helped revise the city’s constitution to meet the needs of its residents.
Yet it wasn’t until after the 2020 election that he thought about running for office to help administer elections.
“What I saw in 2020 and the reason why I ran is that Detroit continued to be in the spotlight around unbalanced precincts,” he said. “Through my work in election protection, I knew about the issues we’ve had in Detroit and then we saw in 2020 this attack on all of that.”
In March, McCampbell launched his campaign to unseat Janice Winfrey, the incumbent city clerk running for her fifth term for the nonpartisan post. Though Winfrey had administered dozens of elections in Detroit, her office saw new attention following the 2020 election when disinformation campaigns targeted the city and lawsuits alleged, without evidence, that Detroit miscounted its votes.
Winfrey said that since the election, she and her election workers have received death threats, including a white man approaching her on the street to accuse her of cheating and to tell her that she is “going to pay.”
“They’re coming to our homes, and they’re making us very uncomfortable,” she said in testimony before a U.S. House panel in July. “Some of my colleagues have been shot at, simply because of what we do. All of us have been threatened — and because we’re trying to represent our community.”
McCampbell said the threats did not deter him.
“Not to sound cliché, but I felt like from this passion that was instilled in me from my parents and from hearing about how they were involved in the civil rights movement and faced harm and death, it really felt like standing up to those threats and violence is part of the fight to make sure our voting rights are secure and that they’re not taken away,” he explained.
In November, McCampbell lost the election to Winfrey, earning just 29% of the vote to Winfrey’s 71%. He said it’s likely he’ll run again in the future, and he’s proud of the work he did to raise awareness of the clerk’s role in protecting voting rights.
“Even though we weren’t victorious, we really raised the bar on what folks expect of that position,” he said.
An empty pipeline
Both Nguyen and McCampbell decided to run for office because of their experience working on elections, including voter education and registration.
But with the need for officials to oversee more than 10,000 local election jurisdictions across the country, experts say there simply aren’t enough people with direct election experience to fill all of them.
That problem has existed for a long time. But in recent years, running elections has become more difficult, and that was before they faced threats and harassment for doing their job, said Brianna Lennon, clerk of Boone County, Missouri, who also hosts a podcast on election administration called “High Turnout Wide Margins.”
“In 2016, we had cybersecurity concerns, so we all tried to become cybersecurity experts,” she said. “Then we had to become pandemic experts. And now it’s all of that stuff and the non-election stuff that I have to do in my job, and I have to risk my safety for that? It’s one too far.”
As a result of the threats, which have made many election officials leave their jobs or make plans to retire early, clerks are “getting to 70 or 80 years old and there’s nobody to take over for them,” Lennon said.
Paul Gronke, a professor at Reed College, has been conducting research through the Stewards of Democracy surveys on local election officials since 2018. He said there is still a vacuum when it comes to research on who runs for local election office and what motivates them.
“There’s a need for more information about who exactly is running for local office,” he said. “What are their backgrounds, what do we know about them, what motivates them to take on this service responsibility? Because it really is a service responsibility.”
Gronke’s research has revealed that the typical local election official is a white woman over the age of 50. While there is a need to bring diversity to the position, it’s difficult given how local jurisdictions are organized, he said.
Los Angeles County, for example, has one election official overseeing more than 6 million voters and more than 1,000 staffers, while Wisconsin has 1,852 jurisdictions with their own election officials at the city, town and village level.
While experts said it would be ideal for every election official to have direct experience in elections, it’s often not possible. What’s most important, Lennon explained, is that the candidates have a good moral compass, respect the integrity of elections, and are willing to learn.
“The thing that worries me the most is people who come in with no experience in the field and can’t articulate why it is that they want the job,” she said.
Trump backers on the ballot
Republicans who embraced Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged against him are running for statewide and local election official positions across the country, according to recent reports.
An analysis by Reuters in September found that 10 of 15 declared GOP candidates for secretary of state in five battleground states have said the 2020 election was stolen or called for their state’s results to be invalidated or further investigated. Trump acolytes are also seeking to infiltrate election offices on the local level.
“It’s about winning elections with the right people — MAGA people,” Trump ally Steve Bannon said in November on an episode of his “War Room” podcast, where he frequently features guests encouraging Big Lie proponents to run for local election office. “We will have our people in at every level.”
The strategy is raising alarms for Democrats and for election experts who fear how these candidates could undermine the offices they seek to run.
“People are being motivated by false or misinformation about 2020 and they’re going to go fix something that isn’t broken,” Gronke said. “They’re going to go implement forensic audits, which is a meaningless term, or they’re going in with motivations that don’t strike me as aligned with the kind of service orientation that we typically see in our local election officials.”
While the majority of local election officials who are elected have to go through partisan contests, Gronke said the position is not typically a partisan one. His research has shown that both Republicans and Democrats are committed to free and fair elections and access and equity, and they often feel like pawns in larger political battles.
Research by election experts at the University of California, Los Angeles has found that the partisanship of election officials has little bearing on election results.
But many of Trump’s followers have a fundamentally different view of how elections should be administered than the typical Republican election official. Still, Gronke explained that their impact may be less than some fear.
Less than one-fifth of local election officials who serve in jurisdictions with more than 250,000 voters are elected. That means more than three-fourths of all registered voters reside in jurisdictions where the election official is appointed, rather than elected.
“While there are disturbing reports of some individuals running for local elections positions and who aren’t really interested at all in high-quality, professional election administration, the number of actual voters who will be impacted may be comparatively low,” Gronke said.
Interest builds in election offices
During a webinar for people interested in running for election administrator held by Run for Something in early December, four current election officials including Lennon discussed everything from fundraising to how to educate voters about what these offices do.
“Election admin used to not be a sexy thing to run for,” Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark said on the webinar. “People didn’t know what it was and those campaigns tended to be really small… But now there’s more and more interest.”
Nguyen attended the webinar and said she was inspired by the elected officials’ stories.
She said she knows she faces an uphill battle raising money, but hopes she will win support for her ideas about how to improve onerous voter registration requirements that disproportionately impact students and non-white voters in DeKalb County
“We need to have more conversations and teach people that there’s a lot of work that goes into the election process, not just on Election Day,” she said.
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