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Opinion Partisan attacks drove me out of my job as a Texas elections official

A Houston election worker leaves a polling place on Nov. 3, 2020. (Mark Felix for The Washington Post)

Michele Carew is elections administrator in Hood County, Tex. She has resigned the position effective Nov. 12.

Like many Americans, I never used to think much about voting until it was time to cast my ballot. But that changed in 2007, when, as a single mother of three, I landed a job as an election clerk in Parker County, Tex. Over the next 14 years, I was promoted, ran years of clean elections in Parker and other counties, served as president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators and, most recently, was hired to oversee the 2020 election in Hood County. I take pride in my work and, like most of my fellow officials, I am deeply committed to free, fair and secure elections.

Nevertheless, in October, I made the difficult decision to resign from my post.

It should never have come to this. When I was hired by Hood County last September, an elections inspector from the Texas secretary of state’s office was assigned to oversee my work, and in a report filed after the elections, she affirmed I had done everything by the book. My office followed best practices, consulted with the secretary of state when questions arose and ran a clean and accurate election — in which 81 percent of our overwhelmingly Republican county voted to reelect President Donald Trump.

Yet, in subsequent months, my administration of that election came under fierce attacks from partisan activists, in meetings and online. Though it was my duty as election administrator to be nonpartisan, that was characterized as a flaw: At the May 11 Hood County Commissioners Court meeting, one commissioner snapped, “Nonpartisan in this county means Democrat.” I was denounced on several episodes of a local conservative Facebook and YouTube program. In July, the election commission held a meeting in which six agenda items targeted me with disinformation and unfounded claims. The only concrete issue involved the numbering of election ballots — an obscure disagreement in which I have not violated any law or principle. One outraged commission member called the meeting a “witch hunt.”

Why the deluge of criticism? The record shows I have voted as a Republican for 11 years (Texans have to choose a party slate for every primary) — but in the “stop the steal” frenzy that followed the November elections, I apparently was not Republican enough.

The ongoing attacks finally led me to resign from a job I have loved. But I promised myself I would speak out about my experience and share some things I have learned.

First, the constant questioning of the 2020 election and the constant spread of lies foster an environment that encourages attacks against election officials. And while the attacks against me were verbal rather than violent, a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that “one in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job. And nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.” That’s clearly unacceptable. It’s important for everyone — especially those in positions of authority — to expose outright lies, resist phony suspicions and encourage support for trustworthy local officials who have been put in an impossible position.

Second, we need to debunk the idea that elected — that is, political — officials are the best people to run elections. One suggestion proposed in Hood County has been to abolish my nonpartisan job and put voting under the control of an elected county clerk. The argument for elected administrators is that, unlike “unelected bureaucrats,” they would be “accountable to the voters.” That’s not quite right: They would also be accountable to their party, and they would have a stake in keeping that party in power. I feel sorry for the county officials who have bought into this delusion. I feel even worse for the voters.

And third, I want to reaffirm that election administrators in Texas are proudly loyal to the voters and to the law. My long and varied experience has shown me that elections in our state are run with the utmost integrity. In 2020, as in every election, the votes were counted fairly, and the will of the people of Texas was truly represented.

I hope my experience is a wake-up call to voters and those political leaders who care deeply about election integrity. We need more understanding from state legislators on how our elections are run, more communication with the actual officials doing the work and more decisions based upon facts — not emotions, and definitely not politics.

I also hope that more citizens will get involved in elections, perhaps volunteering as poll workers or poll watchers. They would see that there is no funny business or politics in the process — it’s about making sure eligible voters can cast their ballots and that those ballots count. That’s it — that’s the whole show.

The 2020 election was a year ago, but we are still reeling from the lies and conspiracy theories that put public servants such as me on the chopping block. Demanding partisan loyalty from those who run our elections threatens our democracy.

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