Rigged voting machines, stealthy Deep State operatives, wily foreigners, masterfully devious Democrats, and treacherously complicit Republicans stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump and left no trace behind, some say. As conspiracy theories go, it’s a little ho-hum, I say. Add a chupacabra and some chemtrails. Over the past few years I have mercilessly lampooned Stop the Steal, Russian Collusion, Plandemic, and other theories as ridiculous. People can’t keep a surprise birthday party secret; odds they can pull off a successful, global-scale cabal are slim.
While conspiracy theories make fun targets for derision, they can have consequences that are anything but funny. Misinformation, particularly in an age of distrust and fierce partisanship, motivates some people to act out in ways that are offensive or even violent. While a minority, their actions impact the lives of decent people and the broader society.
It is not surprising to learn that a small but committed group of 2020 election deniers have negatively impacted the work and lives of county clerks here in Colorado. Over the past three years, more than a third of our state’s election officials have left their positions because of term limits or harassment, according to a recent report by Issue One, a bipartisan group that examined election administration turnover in Western states. More than a third of Colorado counties, including some of the most populous, experienced turnover.
Loss of experienced officeholders is the unintended consequence of term limits. Resignation due to frustration or fear is the intended consequence of harassment. Election conspiracy theorists inundate county clerk offices with record requests, volunteer as election judges or poll watchers with intent to subvert processes or security, and make threats of violence to officials and their staff.
In response to this kind of behavior following the 2020 election, the 2022 Colorado General Assembly passed legislation to make it a crime to threaten or dox (share personal information) election officials. Despite new protections, Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, worries next year’s election will be worse than the last.
The behavior of election conspiracy theorists, he told me, doesn’t just impact the lives of officials, their staffs, and families. “The consequences of their actions, whether it be driving election experts from their jobs, pushing for elections to be held on only one day, advocating for hand counts, or pushing states to leave the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), will only make our elections less accurate, less transparent, and less secure. Rather than protecting our elections, they are actively undermining them.”
Driving experienced clerks from office has other repercussions. According to the Issue One report, departing officials took with them 314 years’ worth of election expertise, more than any other state in the study. When experienced officials leave, their replacements must quickly learn the complexities of the office. Clerks don’t just oversee elections. They issue marriage licenses, vehicle registrations and plates, and other important records and make them accessible to members of the public.
Harassment can also deter responsible members of the public from running for the office of county clerk, working for the office, or volunteering to be an election judge.
During the Obama administration, I served several times as an election judge. Meeting members of my community and facilitating the democratic process was a positive experience each time. All of the election watchers, election judges, and voters were respectful of the process and each other. I would not expect the same should I volunteer again. A powerful and pernicious conspiracy theory has marred this important civic institution. And that’s no laughing matter.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer