The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Emotional Jan. 6 hearing shows election workers were the real heroes

Former Georgia election worker Shaye Moss, foreground, is seen as her mother, Ruby Freeman, wipes a tear, as the House Jan. 6 committee holds a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“There is nowhere I feel safe,” said Ruby Freeman in recorded testimony played during Tuesday’s hearing of the Jan. 6 select committee investigating Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you?”

Her daughter, Shaye Moss, an election official who invited her mother to help with the work of processing votes in Fulton County, Ga., testified about what happened when Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani began publicly lying about them, accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to deny Trump an election victory.

Moss described being inundated with vitriol and with “threats wishing death upon me.” She testified of being told that she’d “be in jail with my mother,” and of hearing “racist” and “hateful” phrases such as, “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.”

The harassment — on their phones, online, at their homes — was intense. And by testifying, Moss and Freeman will probably be subjected to it all over again.

It was a day of extraordinarily poignant testimony. The committee heard from Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, who described how Trump pressured him to “find” precisely enough votes to reverse his loss there, and from Russell “Rusty” Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House, who also rebuffed Trump’s entreaties to cheat on his behalf.

Bowers described how Giuliani urged him to engineer it so Arizona’s Biden electors could be replaced with Trump electors. “I said, ‘Look, you are asking me to do something that is counter to my oath, when I swore to the Constitution to uphold it,’” Bowers testified.

Bowers also described unspeakable harassment, including some endured by his daughter, then very ill. She passed away in January 2021.

We’re now seeing that the story of Trump’s efforts to cling to power at all costs is not just about lies, legal buffoonery and an appalling assault on the integrity of an election that many people around Trump fully understood was illegitimate and possibly illegal.

It’s also about real people whose lives Trump and his coterie of amoral devotees set out to destroy.

Most of us likely didn’t give much thought to election workers before 2020. The polls in your precinct were probably manned by civic-minded retirees just looking to help their community. Officials who oversaw elections were likely paid modestly to do a job that they knew was done well when nobody took notice of it.

But thanks to Trump’s coup plot, election officials all over the country were faced with a tidal wave of threats and harassment, from secretaries of state down to lower-level employees and even Election Day volunteers.

We rarely think about the 2020 election this way, but it actually was a remarkable civic triumph. Countless elections officials across the country poured hard work and commitment into making this election come off surprisingly smoothly — into making democracy and self-rule function — in the face of extraordinarily challenging conditions.

They weren’t just called upon to run an election amid wildly unpredictable pandemic conditions, but also to brave mobs terrorizing them, and to fend off intense pressure — not to mention nonstop lies and slander — from an energized and enraged national movement backed by a president of the United States.

That movement was also powered by a vast media propaganda network: Indeed, as Matthew Gertz of Media Matters points out, Fox News repeatedly aired footage of none other than Moss and her mother, subjecting them to the wrath and hate of the Trump movement.

What makes this even more perverse is that in the alternate narrative spun by Trump propagandists, not only are these dutiful public servants the villains, but the real heroes — and, as always, the real victims — are the rioters. How many times have you heard them referred to as “political prisoners,” assigning them something akin to martyr status?

But amid the committee’s effective marshaling of a damning and relentless set of facts, that sort of up-is-down nonsense just melts away for the mainstream of the country (though it surely persists with the Trump base and Fox audience).

This week, an ABC News-Ipsos poll found that roughly 6 in 10 Americans believe Trump should be prosecuted in relation to Jan. 6, and that the hearings have been impartial. That latter number is striking: Trump and GOP apologists withheld support for a year from any serious reckoning into Jan. 6, casting any and all such efforts as illegitimate, expressly to get the public to tune out the proceedings as a hopelessly partisan exercise, as mere inside-Washington noise.

Yet even though the hearings have of necessity been largely run by Democrats, a solid majority sees them as a legitimate exercise — that is, as fair. The sort of admirable and unmistakable civic virtue we saw on display on Tuesday is surely a big reason for this.

And as hard as they tried, Trump’s many allies, co-conspirators and propagandists in the GOP have failed to make it disappear.