CARROLLTON, Ohio – With early voting less than three weeks away, Nicole Mickley was staring down a daunting to-do list: voting machines to test, poll workers to recruit, an onslaught of public records requests to examine.
And then, over a weekend, came word that the long-time county sheriff had died. To Mickley, director of elections in a small Ohio county, that added one more complication to an election season filled with them. It meant a new contest was needed to fill the position, so she and her small staff would have to remake the ballots for the fall election for the second time in a week.
“I feel like ever since we took office in '19, it’s just been a constant rollercoaster,” said Mickley, whose 36 months on the job qualify her as the senior member of her four-person staff in the Carroll County elections office.
The office Mickley oversees is tucked in a corner of the 137-year-old county courthouse in Carrollton, a close-knit town of 3,200 that sits amid the farm fields and fracking wells of eastern Ohio. She and Deputy Director Cheri Whipkey's son graduated from high school together.
The director and her deputy seem an unlikely pair to be contending with the wrath of a nation.
Yet ever since former President Donald Trump began falsely claiming that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, Mickley, Whipkey and local election workers like them across the country have been inundated with conspiracy theories and election falsehoods, and hounded with harassment.
They've been targeted by threats, stressed by rising workloads and stretched budgets. The stress and vitriol have driven many workers away, creating shortages of election office staff and poll workers.
During Ohio's second primary in August — an added burden for election officials stemming from partisan feuding over redistricting — Mickley's two clerks darted around the county all day filling in for absent poll workers. Two staff members' husbands were enlisted to help.
And then there's the stream of misinformation falsely alleging that voting systems across the country are riddled with fraud. Unfounded conspiracy theories about voting machines, manipulation of elections by artificial intelligence or ballot fixing have found a wide audience among Republicans. The claims sometimes lead voters — usually friends and neighbors of the Carroll County election staff — to question them about voting equipment and election procedures, no longer clear what to believe about a system they've trusted all their lives.
The false claims about the 2020 presidential election also have led believers to inundate election offices around the country with public records requests related to voting processes or equipment, demands to retain the 2020 ballots instead of destroying them, and attempts to remove certain voters from the rolls.
Carroll County hasn't been immune, even though it's heavily Republican and voted for Trump by nearly 53 percentage points over President Joe Biden in 2020. The county of nearly 27,000 people was flooded over the summer with form-letter emails from self-proclaimed “aggrieved citizens." They were protesting electronic voting machines, vowing to sue or demanding the county retain thousands of records from past elections.
Follow-up letters warned that election officials will “be met with the harshest possible criminal and civil repercussions available under the law” if they destroy any election records.
In response, a floor-to-ceiling locked cabinet in Mickley’s office is now jammed with boxes of ballots and other records from 2020, papers that normally would have been destroyed by now to make way for the records of the 2022 election.
“We’re already busting at the seams,” she said. “It’s a small office in the bottom basement of the courthouse that was built in the 1800s. Space is not our friend.”
Whipkey notes that none of the complaint letters are from local residents, so many of whom she knows personally after 16 years managing the local McDonald's. She and Mickley both feel lucky they are only receiving letters — not the death threats experienced by some election officials around the country.
Still, the accusations sting. Whipkey said she hates being called a liar.
“If they wanted the answer, they would have come and asked us. We could give it to them," she said. "But they don’t want the answer; they just want to harass.”
Mickley said attending national conferences has persuaded her that election workers across the U.S. are just as honest, hard-working and passionate as her staff is: “I’m starting to get defensive and angry for them, too.”
Behind a Plexiglas window in the front of the office, the other two election staffers answer calls and process voter registration forms and change-of-address and absentee ballot requests. They're also preparing the precinct kits that will go to poll workers — positions the office is still trying to fill for the Nov. 8 election, when they expect heavy turnout partly because Ohio has one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country.
Clerks Sarah Dyck, a Democrat, and Deloris Kean, a Republican, keep their personal feelings about the movement spawned by Trump's election lies out of the office. They don't want to bring politics into their work helping run the county's elections.
When she's out in the community, Dyck said neighbors are mostly sympathetic about how stressful elections work has become in recent years.
“People all the time say, ‘I don’t know about this, but I know you guys are doing a good job,'" she said. "It's like with congressmen, right? ‘Well, I don’t like Congress, but my congressman's okay.' The closer you are to it, you know the people, and so it's about those relationships.”
That's not always been the experience of members of the Carroll County Board of Elections.
The four members of the bipartisan panel — a retired railroad worker, a farmer, a facilities operator and the owner of a local yoga studio — hold their meetings at a table wedged between Mickley's and Whipkey's desks in the cramped office. A collection of whiskey bottles shaped like elephants and donkeys sits atop a metal filing cabinet nearby.
Some members said they must work constantly to dispel false information that is rampant in the Republican-dominated county.
Roger Thomas, one of the board's two Republicans and the operator of a popular pumpkin stand, said he's frustrated that many of his friends "are unwilling to get past what they think they know with the facts.”
“It doesn't matter what you say to them, you can't convince them," he said. "I don't know how we combat that. They don't care if they gum up the works of these elections, and that's the problem. If these elections go haywire, go south — as the elections go, so goes the country.”
Mickley said she is a perfectionist who would never tolerate the slightest interference with carrying out secure and accurate elections.
She chokes up when talking about how seriously she takes her job and how she and her staff long to ease the worries of skeptical voters. The widespread belief in election conspiracy theories and hostility toward front-line election workers leaves Mickley questioning the country's future.
“I think about my kids," she said, "and I think about what I want to leave for them and what I want to build now to make sure that they still have it in 20, 30 years. And I'm not alone in that.”
Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
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