Robeson County election officials
Election workers — like these Robeson County, NC, officials reviewing postcards that could not be delivered to voters’ addresses on file — just want to do their jobs. Photo credit: © Sue Dorfman/ZUMA Wire
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With distrust in elections at an all-time high and in the face of raging misinformation, a North Carolina poll worker has made it her mission to save future elections at the local level by bringing people from all parties together and educating them on how the process actually works. 

Lynn Bernstein has been advocating for election transparency most of her adult life. In 2018, she founded the organization Transparent Elections NC. And when former President Donald Trump lost the election in 2020 and widespread misinformation led to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Bernstein knew she wanted to do more. 

“Transparency is the solution to the problem of public confidence and elections,” she said. “I think everyone should be aware of the processes of our elections and should go observe for their own peace of mind.” 

In 2021, Bernstein started actively recruiting people to observe absentee ballot meetings and other election processes. She reached out to a variety of Republican groups in her home state and started teaching them how to be public observers, how to be civil, and what to do if they had a concern. She said this task was very challenging at first. 

“It was intense because there’s a lot of anger regarding the 2020 election,” she said. 

Not everyone believes that election observation is a solution; some feel increased scrutiny of the polls would feed voter fraud theories. Bernstein said she emphasizes in her training sessions that election workers are not a threat — they are simply doing their job.

Following the 2020 election and the allegations of voter fraud, election workers have experienced an increased volume of threats and harassment. According to a 2022 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, 1 in 6 local election officials have received threats and more than half of these cases were not reported to law enforcement. 

elections officials, threats, chart

The Brennan Center for Justice survey was conducted from January 31 – February 14, 2022 . Researchers did 596 interviews among local election officials of all political affiliations. Photo credit: Brennan Center

The US Election Assistance Commission is very concerned about this issue. The EAC helps develop guidance to meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which includes adopting voluntary voting system guidelines and serving as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration. 

Thomas Hicks, commissioner of the EAC, condemned threats against election workers. 

“These people are just doing their jobs,” he said. “This has got to stop because it’s just absolutely ridiculous.” 

Bernstein believes it is important to consult groups who are skeptical about elections because they may also otherwise be spreading misinformation. During the 2020 elections, local jurisdictions from 43 states experienced challenges with misinformation about election processes, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

Once people see this process with their own eyes, Bernstein said, they feel more confident about it and then they pass on that information to others in their community. 

Hicks believes recruiting individuals to be election observers could be a potential solution to combat misinformation and threats against election workers. And others agree. 

At a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on July 20, expert witnesses testified about potential solutions to election security –– one suggestion being election observation. 

“I feel it’s important to highlight the very essential right to observe and comment on elections, to be a part of the process, and to engage with your local administrators,” said Neal Kelley, former registrar of voters in Orange County, CA, and one of the witnesses at the hearing. 

In October of 2021, Bernstein recruited people to observe elections in several counties in NC. Groups that went to Brunswick County and New Hanover County started out their observation not feeling very confident, she recalled, but their feelings changed by the end of the absentee ballot meeting.

“They had a lot of questions, and their questions were answered,” she said. “And so that gave them a lot of confidence.” 

Bernstein added that observation training is a way to start having more conversations about the security of elections. Six years ago, before she had started her work with election observation, Berstein herself also had a lot of questions about the election process. She said she wants her efforts with election observation to answer people’s questions and help them see that spreading misinformation is destructive.  

And it wasn’t always an easy road for her. Back in December, while out for a walk with her husband, she was followed by an individual who did not agree with her election observation recruitment efforts. She said it was very scary and that she almost considered quitting. 

But her dedication and passion for election transparency pushed her forward. She strongly believes that she can help people better understand how elections work and help save upcoming elections from another misinformation war. 

“I’m not sure that I changed their mind about the outcome of the 2020 election,” she said. “But I think what I am doing is changing their mind about the future of elections and that they can be done in a transparent way.”

This story was written by a member of our Mentor Apprentice Program (MAP). It gives aspiring journalists an opportunity to hone their craft while covering national and international news under the tutelage of seasoned reporters and editors. You can learn more about the MAP and how you can support our efforts to safeguard the future of journalism here.


Author

  • Elise Kline is a graduate journalism student at American University and a member of WhoWhatWhy's Mentor-Apprentice Program. She has previously written for The DC Line, covering menstrual equity and public policy, and The Wash, covering politics, crime, mental health, and lending discrimination.