Michigan election workers want more done to keep them safe as they face threats, harassment

Michigan still hasn’t set aside money to protect election workers, specifically after threats of violence and death

During the 2020 election, Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist's office collected more than 57,000 ballots. They did it safely and securely. But once the counting was done, the threats started, coming by the dozens.

During the 2020 election, Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist’s office collected more than 57,000 ballots. They did it safely and securely.

But once the counting was done, the threats started, coming by the dozens.

“Veiled threats,” said Siegrist said during an interview in early May. “Yeah, I received lots of veiled threats. Nobody called me and said I’m going to kill your family.”

His office was in the thick of preparing for the August primaries. But those calls did happen for other clerks in Michigan.

Former Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton received a voicemail filled with explicit language threatening her family. Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey was sent photos of a dead body with a message to imagine that body as her daughter.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was threatened by armed protestors outside her home and told NBC News that former President Donald Trump wanted her executed.

Trump denies that claim.

“I would sit there late at night a lot of times holding my son worried, wondering, you know, what would happen if these people actually made do with some of the stuff that they were saying?” Siegrist said as he frequently had long, pensive pauses while recounting his long, long nights. “It wears on you. It wears on you.”

It wore on him so much that he bought a gun and began to wonder about who may be lurking at the end of the street.

“I would walk my neighborhood and look at the vehicles on the street to see if there was anything awry,” Siegrist said. “(I would) look at license plates to try to get an idea if anybody was stalking my house, was following me to and from work.”

Eventually, Siegrist worked to fortify his office. He brought in federal agencies like the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to see just how safe things really were.

They looked at everything; the placement of cameras, door locks, anti-ramming devices, and panic buttons.

They installed bulletproof glass and even changed where trashcans were placed in case someone left a bomb to kill those counting votes. But Siegrist still worries about polling locations like schools or churches where volunteers are vulnerable to violence.

In early 2022, Siegrist’s office won a national award for the way they now run their elections. The current model is based on the same process FEMA uses in disaster zones.

Siegrist has patrolling law enforcement specifically tasked with checking polling locations. His staff and the volunteers have been through active shooter and incident training.

On election day, there’s also a dedicated dispatcher in Canton tasked with taking calls about what happens at polling places. Siegrist, a self-described elections wonk, said they’re forced to treat election day as a day with the potential to turn deadly.

After presenting his township’s new process at a recent conference in Houston, TX, it’s become a model used nationwide.

“That’s nuts,” Siegrist said. “That’s insane because armed protesters show up, and I don’t know if it’s somebody who really likes a second amendment, or it’s somebody who decides I stole the election and wants to put a bullet in my head.”

Still, some clerks like Madison Heights Clerk Cheryl Rottmann are worried even after the worst threats in 2020.

There may be more to come.

“I’m worried about it ramping up again,” said Rottmann. “It sort of died down, and now it’s starting to get ramped up again. I haven’t received anything recently, so hopefully, it’ll maintain that way, but I’m not optimistic.”

Clerks and election worker organizations from across the state have been urging state leaders and lawmakers to take threats and the potential fallout of staffing shortages, and a chilling effect on voting seriously.

So far, their urging hasn’t been enough.

“We have a joint group, Republicans and Democrats, from all over Michigan,” Siegrist said. “Rural clerks, urban clerks, suburban clerks. We all say, ‘okay, we do the work, we see the system, we know it, we want to see this change, and we can’t get a bill, or we can’t get a bill that isn’t tied to something so politically toxic because somebody needs to score red meat for their base.’ Yeah, that’s a problem. We’re not sending adults to Lansing to pass laws.”

In the year and a half since the 2020 elections, the state of Michigan still hasn’t set aside any money to protect election workers, specifically after threats of violence and death.

“The state legislature has allocated no funding for securing and protecting the security of our election workers,” Benson said. “And for me, it’s very frustrating to hear people talk about wanting elections to be secure, wanting to protect our elections, but then not be willing to put money behind those words.”

In 2021, Benson put together a list of proposals to shore up security and training. But she said negotiations with lawmakers are ongoing; they just aren’t moving quickly.

“The talks ebb and flow,” Benson said. “They’re often friendly and productive; what we’re not seeing is results, and that’s really what I and many clerks are getting impatient about. We’ve estimated it to be about 100 million.”

What the state is actually getting is just eight million in federal dollars to be doled out to 1600 clerks across the state.

The 100 million would be used to upgrade election equipment and train poll workers, but how much of the money would be used is up to individual clerks.

Local4 did reach out to the Chairs of both the state senate and state house elections committees, former Secretary of State Senator Ruth Johnson and Rep. Ann Bollin but did not get a response back.

Both women have furthered the false claim the 2020 election was stolen or contained widespread fraud.

Ultimately, it leaves Michigan’s clerks out to dry and potentially in danger.

It’s a difficult realization, even for those like Siegrist.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, you know,” Siegrist said. “I’m an optimist. There’s absolutely nothing I won’t tackle. But everything’s political now.”