CLAY COUNTY, Mo. — On Monday, Larry Carnes was shaking his head in disappointment as concern and confusion filled his eyes.
Less than 24 hours before today’s midterm, the veteran Clay County deputy election judge talked to the KSHB I-Team about the worrisome changes he’s seen among voters and why some believe the system is rigged.
Or that their votes don’t matter.
“Over the last couple of years –probably since the last two presidential elections -- there’s more skepticism from the public about the legitimacy of the voting process,” Carnes, who has worked in more than 15 elections for the county since 2016, said.
Across the county, that mistrust has fueled increased threats toward election workers.
This week, Politico reported that law enforcement is increasing its efforts to protect poll workers, especially in areas where pro-Trump supporters have spread lies about the outcome of the 2020 election.
Police have added extra security at polling locations and ballot boxes. In Colorado, some election boards installed bulletproof glass and one election official now wears a bulletproof vest.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security also warned the public about possible violence during this election cycle.
“As the United States enters mid-term election season this year, we assess that calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase," the report stated.
Asked if he thought he’d ever see a day when election workers faced these types of threats, Carnes said no.
"No, I never would have thought so, but like I said, this (anger) seems to have been escalating over that last two to four years," Carnes said. "People are getting upset, their lives are being affected by the economy and everything to where is seems like some are getting to a boiling point. ”
Patty Lamb, Republican director for the Clay County Board of Election Commissioners, agreed.
“I never imagined anything like that in all my 25 years of working here,” she said.
Lamb said her office works closely with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, which will have deputies on call today and patrolling the county’s 83 precincts. The Sheriff’s Office also trained her staff on de-escalation measures before the mid-term.
Although the training and security measures are peace of mind to election workers like Carnes, he’s not worried about his safety during today’s election.
“ I don’t feel like it’s an unsafe situation at all,” he said. “The main thing to worry about a lot of times is we have some precincts that are really busy, and get lined up , and people may have to wait for two to there hours, and they get upset about that. But most of them are troopers and stick it out.”
Lamb told the I-Team her office has not received any credible threats. She has, however, fielded hundreds of calls since 2020 from election deniers.
“But I’ve found that if you take the time to listen to them and explain the process, they feel better,” she said. “They’ve told me they had no idea of all the security measures in place.”
“I have an open-door policy," she added. "Anyone who has questions about our election process can always call me.”
Transparency, she and her colleagues said, is the best way to combat the spread of misinformation about the election process.
Lamb and her staff gave the KSHB I-Team behind-the-scenes access this week to their procedures.
Those procedures involve multiple layers of checks of balances, chain of custody measures, and – at every step – bi-partisanship.
“What I have found working for the election board is that it’s more secure than people even realized, and there is a process where we have a Republican and a Democrat who are working together hand-in-hand and sign off together on everything,” Carnes said. “It’s not just someone getting the ballots and pitching the ones they don’t want.
“If people knew exactly how things work,” he added, “they would realize that what others are saying (about fraudulent elections) isn’t true and can’t be done.”
But getting that message out, Carnes said, is difficult when voters are inundated with misinformation in TV commercials and social media.
“Half of what they say (in political ads) you don’t know if it’s true or not,” Carnes said. “And unfortunately, I think so many people have a tendency that if they hear something over and over, they believe it.”
He added: “So when a lot of people say ‘well, you know that the last election was rigged, or all the votes didn’t get counted, or the votes were padded for certain candidate,’ it becomes true to them.”
According to University of Denver Business Ethics and Legal Studies Professor Don Mayer, broadcast networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS have limited power to pull political ads by candidates because they are not allowed to interfere with free speech.
“The Supreme Court gives extra protection to “robust” political speech, which political ads clearly are," Mayer said in an interview with KSHB sister station Denver 7." The court decided over 50 years ago in NY Times v Sullivan that false and misleading statements about public officials are perfectly legal, as long as they are not made with “malice” and “reckless disregard” of the truth.”
Keyboard bullies on social media also contribute to voters’ disbelief in the election process, Carnes said.
“People will say that I saw this on social media the other day, or there’s a film of someone doing dropping these off at a ballot box, and you don’t know the legitimacy of it,” he said. “That’s why we try to explain the process to voters. We show them all the steps and procedures we go through. We tell them if they see four people sitting there, two are Democrats and two are Republicans, and each one works with their counterpart at every step.”
Although disheartened by those who’ve lost faith in the country’s elections, Carnes does see signs of hope.
One of those signs includes the long line of voters outside the Clay County Election Board on Monday waiting to cast their ballots early.
“It seems like they’re getting out and voting rather than just turning away from the system and saying it doesn’t matter anyway or that it’s not fair,” he said. “So I think we’ll see a really good turn out, and hopefully, a record turnout.”
To those who still question the election process, Carnes encouraged them to volunteer with the election board and learn how the system works.
“We want people to get involved,” he said. “If they would, they would know that when they hear about people stuffing the ballot boxes, they would realize that there is almost no way that could happen.
“Violence is not the answer,” he added. “People get upset with different groups that try to give the wrong message. But if more people would get involved and be part of the process, they would see how difficult it is to rig the election.”
Lamb echoed his sentiment and reminded everyone heading to the polls today that every vote counts.
“During my 25 years, there have been several times where races were decided by one vote,” she said.
Before returning to his pre-election duties on Monday, Carnes had one final message: “I want people to get out and vote. And vote with confidence – not only in the people they vote for, but in the system and how it works.”