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This grandmother has overseen dozens of elections in her city. And after 2020, she carries a gun

<i>Kyung Lah/CNN</i><br/>Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey shows the gun she now always keeps close at hand.
Kyung Lah/CNN
Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey shows the gun she now always keeps close at hand.

By Kyung Lah and Kim Berryman, CNN

Janice Winfrey doesn’t like how the gun feels in her hand.

The 22 caliber pistol fits in the pocket of her wool coat, small enough to carry on her walks around her peaceful neighborhood with her dog. But the metal feels icy against her fingers in the Michigan winter as she touches it, making sure it’s there, trying to calm her nerves.

It’s the first firearm the grandmother, 63, has ever owned.

“The gun is hard, but I do it because I have to protect myself,” said Winfrey.

Like thousands of city, county and municipal clerks across the country, she has been hit with personal and relentless attacks for her part in carrying out the country’s most secure election in 2020 — an election that former President Donald Trump and his supporters baselessly insist was stolen from them. And, with the 2022 midterms approaching, Winfrey is bracing for more.

It’s not something she anticipated when she was first elected to the nonpartisan position of Detroit city clerk in 2005.

“At most, I thought I’d get writer’s cramp for signing my name,” said Winfrey of the expected dangers of the job that includes record-keeping and clerking for the city council as well as being the chief elections officer.

But she and her city found themselves targeted as part of the big lie by Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. In Michigan, where Joe Biden won by more than 150,000 votes, Trump has repeatedly and falsely claimed to be the winner, saying, “Detroit was so corrupt.”

Days after the November 2020 election, Winfrey was walking outside, trying to rebuild her stamina after contracting Covid. She was about a block away from her home when she says a large man walked up to her, yelling.

“He’s hurling all these [accusations] at me. ‘Why did you allow Trump to lose? Why did you cheat?'” recalled Winfrey of the encounter. But it was what he said next that most alarmed her. “He said, ‘I see you don’t have your dog with you today.’ It was crazy. It made me think this guy has been sitting out here watching me, knowing where I live, and paying attention to my routine.”

Winfrey was only able to give a limited description of the man to police. No one was arrested.

Shortly after the encounter, someone posted on Facebook, threatening to blow up Winfrey’s block.

Winfrey’s adult children bought her pepper spray and a stun gun. She then got the .22 pistol, a concealed carry license and enrolled in training with the weapon.

“One person, one vote,” she told CNN of her job. “Is it worth my life? Apparently, it is. Because I’m continuing on that path.”

Winfrey has seen some colleagues leave their jobs. While there’s no national database tracking the departures of election officials, the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice estimates the battleground state of Pennsylvania lost more than 30% of its election administrators, with a similar percentage of workers lost in Ohio. Wisconsin and Winfrey’s state of Michigan have also seen departures.

“I’m not a quitter, but it’s crossed my mind,” Winfrey said of the personal toll the job has taken. “Any time people tell you that you don’t deserve to live because of what you do for a living, and when people march in front of your house or they come up to you in public places and threaten you, it makes you pause. And after the anger, you become afraid.”

Under attack

Last July, Winfrey testified in Washington before the House Administration Committee, saying she’s lost staff who live in fear. She compared the onslaught of threats for election workers to the US Capitol attack on January 6, 2021.

“Except they’re coming to our homes,” Winfrey told the congressmen and women. “If it weren’t for the work of local election officials, none of you would be here in this room. We just want to uphold democracy.”

These facilitators of democracy are “under siege and under attack,” said David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, who works with Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan election administrators across the country.

“This is domestic terrorism, let’s call it what it is,” Becker said. “These are designed to terrorize these officials, whether they actually result in the violence that’s promised or not. The human toll here is very real and it’s something we’ve never seen before in American history. It’s designed to make these officials lives unbearable and chase them out of office.”

Threats against election workers have historically been handled by state and local authorities but the Department of Justice says it is now supplementing those efforts with resources and coordination in response to the escalating number of threats.

Last summer, the agency launched a task force to address the rise in intimidation of election workers and since then, it has conducted more than 20 training and outreach events to state, local and federal law enforcement, election officials and social media companies. On Friday, it announced charges against a Texas man accused of threatening to kill Georgia election workers.

Becker welcomes any federal assistance but worries about the impact of the threats in the upcoming midterms. He is alarmed by not only the potential loss of a generation of election administration expertise, but about who fills the void when professional election workers leave.

“If we lose all this election administration experience, what’s it going to be replaced by? The passion right now is amongst those who have been lied to, who have been told that someone stole their democracy, which did not happen. And they are now seeking out some of these positions. They think their job is to deliver an election to the candidate they prefer. And that’s exactly the opposite of the professional election administrator.”

‘I’m mad as hell’

Ross Hager took a glue gun and attached a toy tank and Blackhawk helicopter to his red “Make America Great Again” hat before attending a Trump rally in Florence, Arizona, earlier this month. “Just proud to be an American. Go Trump!” he told CNN when asked the meaning.

Hager and others in the crowd, many of whom wore versions of “Trump Won” T-shirts, were adamant their man was cheated out of the White House. Hager told CNN he was convinced of a number of outlandish claims made by Trump and repeated on right wing outlets, despite these claims being discredited again and again.

“I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore,” said Hager, quoting the 1976 movie, “Network.” Hager told CNN he called election offices after the 2020 election, though he wouldn’t detail what he said.

As for the 2022 polls, he said: “I think you’re gonna have a lot more Republicans and a lot more conservative people standing up to make sure the elections, nothing happens. They’re not going to be able to say, ‘Oh no, you got to go outside.’ We’re going to stand right by the polling booth and make sure everything is fair.”

Anger poured from the mic on the stage, as Trump backer after backer, many of them 2022 candidates for state and federal office, talked about election theft and how to fight back.

The former President later disparaged election workers before the crowd, as he repeatedly lied about the results. “The same people who have been lying about everything for four years claim 2020 was the most secure election in history. Give me a break. Give me a break. Those are bad people,” he said.

Kathy Bowers, who drove to Florence from California for the rally, told CNN she blames election workers for Trump losing in 2020. “Some of them were caught cheating,” she said, repeating lies from a misinformation campaign that’s persisted in right wing circles.

Becker, who works with election administrators, said the anger against poll workers is whipped up by Trump supporters and then used for fundraising drives.

“They’re making millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars off of the anger that they’re generating in these sincerely disappointed individuals who preferred another candidate,” he said.

And that could undermine the American system, he said. “If we create an incentive structure where it’s OK for the loser to deny the integrity of the elections, to lie to their supporters, to incite violence and insurrection just because they can’t handle and process the idea they lost, we’re in trouble as a democracy.”

Forced into a dangerous limelight

If election administrators are the gatekeepers of democracy, then Maribeth Witzel-Behl would explain that those gates are ready to break.

“I kept thinking, I must have died and gone to hell. This is not reality,” said Witzel-Behl, city clerk of Madison, Wisconsin, as she thinks about the bizarre threats that she’s faced in the last year. “There’s still a part of me that thinks it’s a dream. I hope it’s just a dream, but it’s not.”

Witzel-Behl is in her 16th year as the city clerk, an appointed, nonpartisan position. A native of Wisconsin, she considers herself introverted with an administrative knack to make things function well for her community. The relative anonymity of the clerk position was a perfect fit for her personality and interests.

“We work behind the scenes to make democracy accessible to the public,” she told CNN in her soft voice.

Witzel-Behl’s name was thrust into the limelight when a right-wing website posted lies about her handling of the ballots in Madison and published her initials. Comments on the website were alarming, as users fantasized about hanging her and what weapons they would use to hurt her, down to the type of ammunition they saw fit.

But Witzel-Behl was most surprised when even friends and extended family began to question her integrity. More than a year after the presidential election and still months before the midterms, the hate calls and messages haven’t stopped, she said.

“Just the other day, I got a message. Somebody sent me an article about a shooting and said ‘Coming soon to a home near you,'” she said.

Witzel-Behl worries when cars pull up slowly to her. She closes the curtains at her home. She took a part-time job in retail just to stay busy so she’s not alone. And when she thinks about how long she can bear the emotional strain, she realizes the answer changes depending on the day.

She’s avoided doing more interviews out of fear. But when Witzel-Behl heard Winfrey, the Detroit official, was also speaking to CNN, she said she would stand with her sister in elections, noting too many women in their profession suffer alone.

Winfrey and Witzel-Behl both talk of the importance of running elections at a local level, by and for a community.

Witzel-Behl said: “That’s the basis of our society and that’s the way that everybody has an equal level of power. If you are eligible to vote, that’s a superpower.”

Winfrey said she wants people to know how the process is under threat and how it is being held together by ordinary Americans who never expected to be in the crosshairs.

“The democratic process is so important. Important enough for me to feel a little uncomfortable. To feel a little afraid, in order to ensure that democracy is in safe and good hands,” she said.

These days, her hand is never far from her gun. Asked about the midterms and whether the process will be contentious again or perhaps even worse, she said: “I’d like to say no, but reality says something else.”

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