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A Texas county's election administrators all resigned, leaving the state to step in

"I Voted" stickers are seen on March 1 in Austin, Texas.
Montinique Monroe
/
Getty Images
"I Voted" stickers are seen on March 1 in Austin, Texas.

In Texas, a county elections administrator and her two deputies have resigned, with at least one citing threats fueled by misinformation, as former President Donald Trump and his supporters continue to spread baseless claims about the 2020 election.

"The threats against election officials and my election staff, dangerous misinformation, lack of full time personnel for the elections office, unpaid compensation, and absurd legislation have completely changed the job I initially accepted," now-former Gillespie County Elections Administrator Anissa Herrera reportedly wrote in her resignation letter, dated Aug. 2.

She added: "The life commitment I have given to this job is unsustainable."

The letter was obtained by Votebeat through a public records request.

The Texas secretary of state's office provided a few more details about the threats, which Herrera first revealed to the local Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post.

"I don't know if there's been any threat since, we didn't get a lot of specifics about the threats, only that they were a combination of social media stalking and other kinds of threats against her in her capacity as elections administrator," Sam Taylor, assistant secretary for communications at the secretary of state's office, told Texas Public Radio.

The state to send in trainers

Now, two months before early voting begins for the November general election, the county, which is west of Austin, has no elections department.

"I really don't know what they're going to do and how they're going to hold the election in November. And they're going to have to do a lot of scrambling," said Joyce LeBombard, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.

The Texas secretary of state's office plans to send in trainers to make sure Gillespie County can still hold an election this November.

Taylor said replacements would be trained by former election admins who work with the secretary of state's office in regularly training new elections officials. In the case of Gillespie County, workers in the tax office and county clerk's office will likely take up the initial responsibilities.

"The [county] judge has told us there are still employees in the county clerk and county tax-assessor collector's office who have run elections in the past," Taylor said. "Albeit that was back in 2019 and earlier. So a lot has changed about election laws since then. So that's why our office is going to be sending our trainers, we've got about six to eight trainers on our staff. All of them are former county election officials themselves."

Under Texas law, counties appoint elections administrators through a locally created commission that includes the county judge, county clerk, tax-assessor collector and the chairs of the county political parties.

Early voting in Texas starts on Oct. 24, giving state officials a two-month window to train replacements until a new elections administrator is appointed — an appointment that may not happen until after the November election.

Gillespie County, where Trump secured 79% of the vote in 2020, has just over 20,000 registered voters.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke visited Fredericksburg, the county seat, days after the resignation as part of a statewide campaign tour.

He said the threats were an attack on American democracy and criticized some Texas voting laws that he said make it difficult to register and cast mail ballots.

"Not only are we the toughest state in which to register to vote, in which to cast a ballot, but you have election workers in Gillespie being run out of office, you have election workers and others in other counties within the state who feel under constant attack, you have now an elections law that allows partisans to come to polling places to serve as poll watchers really with free rein to intimidate voters who show up," O'Rourke said.

Texas has been an especially difficult place for election workers in recent years, according to Remi Garza, the immediate past president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators. He points to the state's relatively new expanded voting observer law.

"Before, [the law] was that they could 'observe' the activities of the polling place, and they changed that to 'see and hear' what's occurring, which makes it much more subjective to the individual who is watching," he said. "There's the chance they could be a little more intrusive to the process because they could claim they are not able to see or hear what's happening in a polling place."

Garza said the expansion of the voter observation law comes with legal protections that he said may occasionally give observers a sense of entitlement to be more engaged in the process than intended by the law. He said the role of observers is to monitor the voting process to ensure transparency and that voting laws are followed. He said observers are expected to do just that, not "coach" or "referee" election workers.

"It has never been before"

The Democratic-led U.S. House Oversight Committee last week released a report detailing threats made to election officials across the country. One such instance from Texas includes threats of hanging and harm to the children of a county election official.

"In Texas, 'personal attacks on national media outlets' led to alarming threats against an election administrator, including a social media call to 'hang him when convicted for fraud and let his lifeless body hang in public until maggots drip out of his mouth' and messages threatening his children, stating, 'I think we should end your bloodline,' " the report stated.

David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center of Election Innovation & Research, said these kinds of threats were not common before Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

"Gillespie County is one of the more extreme incidents with an entire county's election staff resigning," Becker said. "But we have to understand that election workers all over the country — in red states, blue states, battleground states, non-battleground states — from elected secretaries of state down to volunteer poll workers are being harassed and threatened in a way that we've never seen before. It's not worse than it's been before. It has never been before."

Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio

Joey Palacios
Dan Katz
David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.