Tuesday’s hearing of the select House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol ended with perhaps the most emotional part in the hearings yet: a mother-daughter team of former Georgia pollsters Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, discussing what it was like to be singled out as part of former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories that the election had been stolen — and that pollsters like Moss and Freeman were involved in the plot.
In doing so, they emphasized a serious and ongoing threat to American democracy.
In the weeks following the 2020 election, the Trump campaign and its allies publicly accused the two women who committed voter fraud in Fulton County (home of Atlanta). Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, at one point claimed that the mother and daughter — who are black — were handing out USB sticks full of fake votes as if they were “bottles of heroin or cocaine(it was actually a ginger mint, according to Moss).
During Trump’s now infamous conversation with Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump put pressure on the latter to “find” enough votes to change the election results, he called the two women 18 different times† (Raffensperger also testified at Tuesday’s hearing.)
The result was a wave of bullying that destroyed the lives of the two women. Moss testified that she “received a lot of threats and wished me death — and told me that I’ll be, you know, in jail with my mom and say things like ‘be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920’.” hid and said she had gained 60 pounds from the stress. Trump supporters attacked her grandmother’s home, storming in and exclaiming they came in to put a citizen’s arrest.
Freeman, for her part, proudly wore T-shirts with her nickname – “Lady Ruby” – on them. “Now,” she testified in a videotaped statement, “I won’t even introduce myself by name anymore.” She went on:
I don’t feel safe anywhere. nowhere. Do you know what it feels like when the President of the United States targets you? The President of the United States is supposed to represent every American. Not to target one. But he focused on me, Lady Ruby, a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stood up to help Fulton County organize elections in the midst of the pandemic.
This testimony revealed the real harm to human lives from lies uttered by Trump and his allies. But it also pointed to something deeper: the way attacks on individual pollsters erode the very foundations of our democracy.
Officials across the country, from ordinary people like Moss and Freeman to government officials like Raffensperger, are stepping up to ensure that our elections are legal and smooth. By attacking them so personally, Trump and his anti-democratic allies are increasing the cost of such citizen participation — and opening the door to MAGA disciples to infiltrate our election infrastructure in 2022 and beyond.
Undermining democracy, one pollster at a time
While Moss and Freeman were special targets of Trump and Giuliani, they weren’t the only pollsters to face brutal harassment during the latest election cycle. A 2021 study found that: 17 percent of U.S. local election officials were threatened by their jobs during the 2020 election cycle. David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told me last year that before 2020 this was far from normal.
“It’s not even right to say [threatening election workers] was rare before 2020. It was so rare it was virtually nonexistent,” he said. “This is beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”
Sometimes these threats were the direct result of Trump picking out a pollster — as was the case with Freeman, Moss, and other officials like Raffensperger.
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican in charge of election surveillance, became a lightning rod when Trump tweeted that he was someone who was “widely used by the fake news media” as a cover for election fraud. He received a wave of threats† a deputy commissioner, Seth Bluestein, was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. Schmidt’s wife received e-mails with threats like “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. Insidious SCHMIDTS.” The family left the house after the election for security reasons; Schmidt has announced that he will not be eligible for re-election in 2023†
In other cases, presidential involvement was not necessary to incite intimidation. Trump’s conspiracy theories that the 2020 election had been stolen and that local election officials were often part of “the steal” had created a climate where hardcore Trump supporters felt empowered to take matters into their own hands.
In Vermont, not exactly a swing state Trump was interested in, one of his supporters sent a series of threatening messages to election officials in late 2020 — warning them, among other things, that “your damn days are numbered†
This intimidation has clearly not enabled Trump to undo the 2020 election. But it has done tremendous psychological damage to election workers like Moss and Freeman, who have tough jobs ahead of them low wages† a 2020 national poll of election officials conducted by Reed College’s Early Voting Information Center, found that about a quarter of respondents planned to retire before the 2024 presidential election. One of the main reasons cited was “the political environment” — meaning that the politicization of their jobs and the associated threats made them want to leave.
When dedicated pollsters stop, it means the person’s years of expertise in specialized and technical areas disappear. One departure, or a handful, may be manageable. Mass cancellations – and an environment that prevents citizens from acting to fill the vacancies † could be catastrophic for election management.
That’s especially true as Trump’s allies work to put their supporters in key election roles. A ProPublica from September 2021 research documented the emergence of a “district strategy,” beginning with a call to action on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s radio show, in which Republicans have begun flooding local polling stations with volunteers who could shape the counting process in the next election cycle. They found that thousands of Republicans had signed up for these roles since Bannon’s campaign began, with no comparable rise on the Democratic side.
“Your best case scenario” [if poll workers quit en masse] are more problems at polling stations and with voting,” Becker told me. “The worst-case scenario is not just whether we lose it, but what happens when that experience is replaced by hacking… more people who believe their job is to deliver their election to the candidate they want to see win.”
Election security analysts are: is already concerned about the midterms of 2022 — in particular, whether the 2020 campaigns of harassment and intimidation will be repeated. There are good reasons to believe that this will be the case, as a Majority of Republicans still believe Trump’s fictions about a deadly compromised electoral system.
There’s a real chance Moss and Freeman won’t be the last pollsters to have their lives turned upside down as part of Trump’s quest for power. That looming possibility and its chilling effects on bourgeois Americans could be debilitating to our democracy.