Election Officials Nationwide Are Making Big Security Upgrades Ahead Of November

Election administrators are beefing up security ahead of the 2024 elections.
Election administrators are beefing up security ahead of the 2024 elections. Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

Last summer, a candidate for the New Mexico state House showed up on Nathan Jaramillo’s doorstep. Jaramillo, the Bureau of Elections administrator in Bernalillo County, said Solomon Peña had previously sent threatening emails to both himself and to others in the county. Jaramillo brushed it off, annoyed at the personal intrusion but unconcerned.

Five months later, Peña, a Trump supporter who lost his election and rejected the results, was arrested and charged with organizing a string of brazen drive-by shootings targeting public officials.

Jaramillo thought back to five months earlier, when the man had shown up at his doorstep.

The severity of the situation “really hit me,” Jaramillo told HuffPost. “In hindsight, it was a lot more scary.”

Now, Jaramillo’s office assigns ticket numbers to emails they receive, organizing them by sender and keeping tabs on the office’s responses, in the hopes of anticipating anyone who could escalate their complaints into something more serious.

But the incident with Peña — who has pleaded not guilty, and whose attorney did not respond to a request for comment — is just one scene representative of an increasingly tense era of American politics. Fueled by Trump’s lies about election theft, supporters of his have spent years threatening election workers and the democratic process — and acting upon those threats. Now, as the 2024 presidential campaign charges toward November, election offices are taking steps they’d never dreamed could be necessary.

Several election officials HuffPost spoke to laid out laundry lists of upgrades — everything from ballistic windows, doors and walls to new security cameras, electronic access badges and location trackers on ballot boxes. And as the Republican Party continues to push lies about election integrity — a scripted Republican Party call last month falsely claimed there was “massive fraud” in 2020 — election officials are gearing up to protect what promises to be an even more tense presidential contest this year. 

For Mary Hall, the elected auditor of Thurston County, Washington, election security this year means a jarring addition to her county’s new voting center: a separately ventilated mail-opening room.

“We had a white powder incident in the [2022] general election,” she recalled nonchalantly. “We received an envelope with fentanyl.”

Hall isn’t alone: Hers was one of several election offices in Washington State and around the country that received envelopes filled with white powder last November. In some cases, the powder was later confirmed to be baking soda. But the envelopes sent to Hall’s and several other offices held a powder containing the potent opioid.

Hall said that in discussions with FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials, “they don’t anticipate that that’s going away.”

Around the country, election officials are working on evacuation and “quick containment” drills for future potential envelope attacks — even just using a bucket to contain a suspicious envelope — and stocking up on masks, gloves and naloxone, just in case, said Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official in Utah and Colorado and co-founder of an election consulting group during a recent call hosted by the National Task Force on Election Crises.

No one has been charged for last year’s envelope attacks; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service told HuffPost in an email that an investigation is ongoing. The FBI declined to comment beyond a statement from last year acknowledging “multiple incidents involving suspicious letters sent to ballot counting centers in several states.” 

The election-denial movement has played a large role in the beefed up security plans, Hall told HuffPost. 

“Prior to 2016, it was a pretty sleepy industry. People trusted their election officials and the process,” she said.

Then, Hall said, “everything changed: When you have rhetoric coming from the top, it empowers and activates people all the way down the food chain.” 

‘Love Notes’

Still, the spike in violent threats against election workers has been met with a federal response. In 2021, the Justice Department announced it was forming the Election Threats Task Force,  and so far, the department has brought  charges against 20 individuals for interstate election threats, officials announcedrecently. Of those, 13 have been convicted.

Still, given the high bar required for prosecution, that number represents a “fraction” of the threats faced by election workers, Mary McCord, who leads Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said on the Election Crises call. Election workers will tell you that themselves: Hall says her office receives menacing “love notes.”

But election workers’ preparations for 2024 are complicated by the sheer range of security issues that could come up: Since 2020, for example, Trump supporters across the country have tried — sometimes successfully — to copy data from sensitive equipment like voting machines and ballot tabulators.

In Michigan, for example, several prominent Republicans, including a former GOP nominee for state attorney general, have been charged with felonies for their roles in an alleged conspiracy to improperly gain access to ballot tabulators. In Colorado, a former county clerk faces felony charges for allegedly allowing a computer technician to get into election machines under false pretenses; information from the machines was subsequently shared at an election fraud conspiracy theory summit. 

The answer to these growing threats, according to election officials, is a mix of background checks, digital protections like phishing training for staff and multi-factor authentication for accessing databases, in addition to physical measures like electronic badges that allow different levels of access to observers, volunteers, election workers and government employees. 

Bill Mast, elections director in Arapahoe County, Colorado, told HuffPost that different categories of election workers — people who open ballots, verify signatures or tally votes, for example — wear differently-colored vests on the job, so leadership can make sure no one strays from their assigned area. Mast said it was part of what he calls a “zero-trust” environment — a way of displaying to voters and observers that the county’s work is beyond reproach, given the existing lack of trust from many voters in the process.

Since 2017, election administrators have had a federal ally for their security needs: the Department of Homeland Security. Near the end of Barack Obama’s second term as president, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson declared election systems to be what the government calls “critical infrastructure,” alongside other facilities like wastewater treatment systems and nuclear reactors. This distinction means DHS and its sub-agency CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, can provide state and local officials with security assessments of their facilities, identifying weak points and potential areas for investment.

(Donald Trump fired then-CISA leader Chris Krebs two weeks after Election Day 2020; under Krebs’ leadership, CISA had issued a statement calling the 2020 election “the most secure in American history” and published a “rumor control” page, which reportedlyangered Trump. Republicans have continued to attack government efforts to combat election disinformation.) 

Cait Conley, a senior adviser at CISA, told HuffPost in a statement that last year, “CISA provided hundreds of voluntary, no-cost security assessments, trainings, and exercises across the country.”

Derek Bowens, the director of elections in Durham County, North Carolina, told HuffPost he brought the results of DHS and CISA security assessments to the county’s board of commissioners, asking them to provide funds for an upgraded elections office. The county agreed to spend millions converting an old Kroger grocery store to an elections building, complete with modern security measures like cameras, glass dividers, emergency response buttons and a negative pressure room for opening mail, Bowens said. 

Brain Drain

For veteran election administrators, the Trump era has brought with it a troubling wave of resignations. Workers at all levels have decided they’d rather not participate in a process that, in recent years, has led some of their neighbors to think they’re part of an anti-democratic cabal.

What used to be considered sleepy “clerk work” is now heavily scrutinized — and, as the Republican attacks against Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss showed, may make people vulnerable to nationwide defamation campaigns.

In North Carolina, there’s been a “huge increase” in directors of elections retiring, Bowens said. And Jaramillo described “individuals that were with our office for 20-plus years [who] made the determination that they weren’t in it for the 2024 ride.”

Mast said he’d seen an “incredible” number of election workers retiring or changing fields. Among elected clerks, Mast said the position has gone from one filled largely by career administrators who served lengthy tenures to one with roughly 30% turnover every four years. After the “environmental changes” of 2020, experienced clerks have begun leaving the field more often, he said. “It’s incredible to see.”

Mast himself said he’s asked family members not to share the nature of his work with others, “just from a risk reduction standpoint.” Now, the Arapahoe County office’s media team makes sure to ask election workers if they consent to having pictures of themselves shared online, due to concerns about doxxing and other attacks. After 2020, Mast said, “you could definitely see some of the shine come off the apple,” as workers spoke less about the pride they took in their work. 

Tabletop Games

These days, as primary elections take place around the country, election administrators are getting ready the way they usually do: gaming things out.

Tabletop exercises — TTXes, for short — are used to create organized simulations of elections season. If it can go wrong, it’s been table-top-gamed: weather incidents, bomb threats, ransomware attacks, active shooters, ballot drop box stalkers and everything in between. 

The exercises, according to election administrators who’ve taken part in them, offer a valuable opportunity to test out emergency procedures that would otherwise exist only in hypothetical flow charts. For example, what would happen to drop boxes in low-lying areas in the event of a freak flood? (According to Hall, whose office recently gamed through the hypothetical: Local fire districts have keys to the boxes and can be deputized to collect ballots in case of emergency; ballot pouches would be sealed and logged.) 

“Before, they just kind of sat in a file drawer and you looked at them occasionally,” Bowens said of the exercises. Nowadays, though, “they help prepare for incidents that are a lot more likely than they would have been 10 years ago.”

Every now and then, the games spur real-world news of their own. In August 2020, a particularly buzzy TTX gamed out the hypothetical outcome of a contested election that produced violence in the streets. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol played the part of Donald Trump, one of more than 100 players involved in the game. Among organizers’ conclusions? “A determined campaign has [the] opportunity to contest the election into January 2021.” Steve Bannon attacked the exercise as the preview of a plot to prevent a second Trump term, saying “they intend to really have a coup and keep President Trump from taking the oath of office,” and that “the real war” would begin after Election Day.

This time around, as Election Day approaches, more officials are incorporating one major element in their TTXes: disinformation, whether human-produced or artificial.

The advice for voters is simpler: If you get a suspicious robocall announcing that your polling place has shut down, for example, contact the officials tasked with running your region’s elections. Despite it all — the threats, harassment, even gunfire — they’re still happy to take your call.

For Bowens — who’s so enthusiastic about elections he literally plays the CNN election theme music every morning as he comes into the office — voters’ safety and comfort with the democratic process is his top priority. Rather than feeling intimidated by the risk of violence or misinformation, he said, they should know election administrators are planning ahead.

“Know that there’s a plan,” he said. “There is a threat [to elections], and it’s real. You’re going to read it on the news, you’re going to hear about it from maybe-unreliable third-party sources. But we also want you to know, this is how we plan to respond to these things, if and when they occur.”

“We’ll be protected,” he added, “because we prepared for it.”