‘People didn’t sign up for this’: Local elections officials brace for 2022 amid threats, baseless claims

Scott Mcdonell
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell speaks at a Wisconsin Elections Commission meeting on Sept. 25, 2018. At the meeting, commissioners approved procedures for voluntary post-election audits, giving counties guidelines on how to do the audits and offering reimbursement for costs. McDonell says he supports the commission’s efforts to move forward with post-election audits.
Credit: Emily Hamer Wisconsin Watch

MADISON, Wis. — Scott McDonell has a stack of them in his office: notes, postcards, handwritten mail addressed to him and scrawled with notes about election fraud and more.

The ones to him haven’t been all too threatening, the Dane County clerk and top elections official for the county said. Madison’s and Milwaukee’s city clerks, however, didn’t get off so easily, he noted, with both targeted for death threats and violent messages in the wake of Joe Biden winning Wisconsin last fall with about 20,000 votes to spare.

“I worry about the escalating anger and where it ends up,” McDonell mused. “It’s certainly intimidating, and causes clerks to say ‘I can make more at Target, and no one’s carrying a gun when they’re talking to me.'”

He’s talking about a reference state senator Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) made in a panel hosted at the state capitol on Monday discussing threats against election officials.

The former longtime local elections official in Chippewa County and current chair of the Senate Elections Committee urged Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and her Republican colleagues to end former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman’s elections investigation in Wisconsin. He has made baseless claims that the election was stolen, and, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting, has said he doesn’t have a “comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work.”

“Mr. Gableman is coming to my county and I will attend that meeting along with my concealed carry permit, to be perfectly honest,” Bernier said during the panel Monday.

McDonell said her fears echo reality in Wisconsin and nationwide, where underpaid and overworked local elections officials have tried to explain election systems in meetings to attendees who have open carried their weapons to the event.

“There’s a lot of concern. People didn’t sign up for this. They don’t get paid very well,” McDonell said.

For local city and county clerks, 2021 has been unrelenting amid a rush of audits, investigations, and conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 results. For people who don’t understand elections, the constant re-litigation of results that have been audited and finalized is contributing to the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the elections, Bernier said.

That, in turn, gets directed at the local clerks.

There’s been “an unprecedented level of hostility directed at them, during what should be otherwise a quiet time,” David Becker, the executive director for the Center for Election Innovation and Research, noted at Monday’s panel.

Those fears aren’t over as 2021 draws to a close. 2022 will bring a host of important Wisconsin elections, including gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, amid a national midterms battle for the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

Agitators have grown more organized, McDonell believes, and the threats will only become more aggressive. He isn’t going anywhere, and in a recent Cap Times article, Madison city clerk Maribeth said she renewed her contract with the city after the 2020 election only after lengthy consideration.

Still, McDonell worries others won’t see the purpose in sticking with jobs that don’t match their compensation to the harsh reality.

“We have a lot of clerks in Dane County who only work 10, 15 hours a week,” he noted. “What’s the incentive for them to stick around for this?”