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How insights from 2020's election officials could help safeguard future elections

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The 2020 election has been called, quote, "the most secure in American history." And yet you may recall that the federal election security official who said that, Chris Krebs, was fired by former President Donald Trump just weeks after the election for insisting the vote was fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS KREBS: The job wasn't done until January 20, 2021, when now-President Biden swore the oath of office. That said, there were a lot of very concerning events that both got us there that continue on today.

CHANG: Well, a new oral history project at Stanford University aims to document those concerning events through interviews with Krebs and more than a dozen other election officials. Matt Masterson, who himself used to work on election cybersecurity under Krebs, conducted those interviews, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

MATT MASTERSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: I know that you have said that election officials - they are rarely public figures. And I'm curious. What was it like for them to get shoved into the spotlight in the aftermath of the 2020 election? What kind of things did you hear from them?

MASTERSON: For these election officials, it's both uncomfortable and incredibly unnerving to be targeted with the threats, the harassment. I mean, we heard over and over again an acceptance of a certain level of vitriol that comes with political contests, with elections. But this far exceeded exponentially the types of threats and targeting that they had heard, and they are dejected. And frankly, it's been traumatic for them.

CHANG: And we should be clear that when you talk to all of these election officials, you saw that both Democratic and Republican election officials were the targets of harassment. For example, Republican Barbara Cegavske, Nevada secretary of state - she described personal threats that were made against her.

BARBARA CEGAVSKE: They told me that I was lucky to have had Christmas with my family and that they were going to make sure that something happened to me.

MASTERSON: Those Republicans, like Secretary Cegavske and Brad Raffensperger in Georgia and Tina Barton in Michigan, really faced immense amounts of threats of violence because they were expected to go along with the requests to undermine the election or even change the results in the case of Secretary Raffensperger. And so for them, they stood up, they pushed back, and they protected the integrity of the election to their own both political jeopardy in some cases but, more importantly, to the threat of safety against themselves and their family, as we heard from Philadelphia Election Commissioner Al Schmidt, who saw not just himself but his family and his children threatened as a part of this.

CHANG: What impact do you think that ultimately has on the fair administration of elections in this country?

MASTERSON: What we are seeing is election officials at the state and local level leaving their positions. This isn't just restricted to swing states or Democrats. This is Republican and Democrat alike being threatened and pushed to deny the accuracy and integrity of the election, which they will not do. And so they're walking away.

CHANG: Well, that leads to a larger point. I mean, democracy only survives if people actually accept losing - right? - if they actually accept the legitimacy of their loss. So what sort of place do you think we are in now, when a former president and millions of his followers just won't do that?

MASTERSON: Our democracy right now is teetering on the brink. What we saw in 2020 was neither particularly sophisticated - we're talking about Italian satellites and bamboo ballots - nor was it particularly well-organized. Well, now that this playbook has become part of a larger grift, that we've seen that there's no accountability and it's successfully raising money and making money for folks, it's going to get more sophisticated. And it's going to be used more broadly instead of just, you know, a national election like we saw in 2020. And so we have to recognize the threat. The threat is real, active. And we have to continue to push information out about our elections on a consistent basis to our voters so that they have the information at their fingertips to accept the results regardless of what the narratives that are being pushed are.

CHANG: Matt Masterson is a non-resident fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

MASTERSON: Thank you so much for the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZERBEAK'S "WINGING IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.