Amid threats, security rises at meetings of public officials
MADISON, Wis. — The meeting place? A secret. Agenda? Not public. Name tags? Take them off in public.
Even one of the main social events — trivia night — would be at an undisclosed location. This was no meeting of spies or undercover law enforcement agents. Instead, these were the security protocols for a gathering this week in Madison, Wisconsin, of state election bureaucrats from around the U.S.
While the hush-hush measures might seem a bit extreme, they were put in place because of the very real threats against election workers that have been escalating since the 2020 presidential election as former President Donald Trump continues to promote the lie that widespread fraud cost him re-election.
Security increased at meetings of government officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, “but not like this where the agenda is kept secret,” said Kevin Kennedy, who was Wisconsin’s top election official for nearly four decades before retiring in 2016. He has attended meetings of the National Association of State Election Directors for more than 30 years and said it was jarring that otherwise anonymous election workers are now being targeted.
“This is just at a different level, and it’s a reflection of the times and it’s unfortunate,” he said.
Becoming targets: State and local election officials have become targets for those upset with Trump’s loss and who believe any number of unfounded conspiracy theories about a rigged election. Many have retired or quit as a result, raising staffing concerns in some offices.
Four people have been charged by federal prosecutors, with one of them pleading guilty last month. In that case, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold was the subject of multiple threatening posts on social media.
Robert Heberle, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, told state election officials recently that dozens of cases were still under investigation and more prosecutions were expected.
Griswold, a Democrat who has received numerous death threats since the 2020 election, traveled to the National Association of Secretaries of State conference earlier this summer in Louisiana with private security.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Griswold said she won’t be intimidated by the threats and said a new state law she helped pass increases protections for election workers at all levels.
“We cannot allow violent threats to secretaries of state and election workers become an accepted norm in the United States,” she said.
Organizers of the secretaries of state meeting, held twice a year, have been increasing security measures since the 2020 election, said Maria Benson, the group’s communications director. That includes coordinating with law enforcement agencies before and during the conferences, she said.
Heavy law enforcement: At the group’s summer meeting earlier this month in Baton Rouge, local law enforcement officers were visible in the lobby and meeting areas of the hotel where the conference was being held. Members of the media were instructed to keep their credentials visible while in the meeting area.
It’s not just election officials who are commanding tighter security during their gatherings.
When the National Governors Association met earlier this month in Portland, Maine, security was the highest in the state in decades.
The heavy law enforcement presence included city police, state police and security details, including troopers from other states. Plainclothes police roamed the event, and extra officers were kept out of sight, in case they were needed.
The increased security presence took place as demonstrators gathered to protest new abortion restrictions in states such as Arkansas, home of outgoing association chairman and current Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican. Security planning, which was in the works for months, also involved police K-9 units and patrol boats in the harbor.
“We are in different times right now,” said Shannon Moss, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “Just look at recent events that happened in our country — mass shootings, violent and disruptive protests, a divisive political climate. Law enforcement has to be prepared to deal with these kinds of potential security threats.”
There were no protesters outside the gathering of election administrators this week in Wisconsin, but the threats of violence against election workers have become so pervasive that the group was taking no chances on security.
The exact location meeting — which ended up being just a block away from the state Capitol — wasn’t revealed to reporters who registered to cover it until four days before the event began. There were no signs in the hotel announcing the meeting. And the agenda detailing topics to be discussed, such as “understanding and preventing insider threats,” wasn’t handed out until the start of the meeting.
Amy Cohen, executive director of the state elections group, cautioned the 170 registered attendees from 33 states to wear their name tags when at the event, but to take them off when they left and went into the city.
“Don’t advertise who you are and exactly why you’re here,” she said.
Cohen said meeting organizers coordinated with federal, state and local law enforcement for the event. She encouraged attendees to report any suspicious activity they saw, and hotel staff had been trained to be vigilant.
She said the association did not live-stream any of the panels nor did it post any messages to its Twitter account during the gathering, although there were no social media prohibitions for those who attended.
“Please do be thoughtful about what you post and remember that some of the people in this room are dealing with serious security concerns and we need to be respectful to keep everyone safe,” Cohen said at the start of the gathering.
Judd Choate, Colorado’s state elections director for the past 13 years, attended the Wisconsin event and said he has been surprised at the level of rancor and hostility toward election workers. He said many of the attacks are coming from people with little understanding of how elections are run.
“We were kind of a sleepy part of government, and we’re not anymore,” he said.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta; and David Sharp and Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.