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Why retaining poll workers in this contentious election year is a challenge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, an appeals court put the Georgia election interference case against former President Trump and others on hold while it considers whether the lead prosecutor should remain on the case. Now, that case hinges on whether Trump and his allies try to pressure state and local officials to change the results in Trump's favor and targeted them when they refused.

But however the legal case proceeds, state and local officials say they are continuing to face harassment and threats, and that's making it harder to find people willing to do the work. Tate Fall is one of the people having to figure out how to run an election in this highly charged political environment. She is the elections director for Cobb County, Georgia. Tate Fall, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TATE FALL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Tate, obviously, one of the reasons we called you is that Georgia was so much in the spotlight in the last election. Georgia is a swing state, and Cobb County has become a swing county. I mean, Cobb County, Georgia, is historically a Republican stronghold, but President Biden won the county and ultimately the state in the 2020 election.

Now, Georgia has already held two primary elections this year, and you're setting up for another one this month. So I wanted to ask, what are some of the challenges you've faced so far? How's it going?

FALL: Sure. So I came to Cobb in December. I just celebrated my six-month anniversary, and we're about to have our third election. So it's been quite an adjustment, a bit of drinking from a fire hose. And then as the narratives in the media continue to focus in on Georgia and Cobb County, some of our seasoned workers are letting me know that they don't want to work November, but they'll come back next year when we just have municipals and it's a little bit quieter.

MARTIN: There's obviously a couple of very well-publicized cases of workers who faced some very serious harassment. Is that still a problem?

FALL: We haven't seen that as much this year. We've also seen a lot lower turnout than we had expected. But it's still top of mind for us.

You know, we had a security incident at a polling place for the May election where a poll manager had a voter who was really upset, kind of turned into a confrontation. Luckily, the poll manager was able to deescalate. But then when he was walking away after it was resolved, she realized he was conceal-carrying a weapon.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

FALL: So that's what's top of mind for my poll workers, is how they're going to handle November with the charged atmosphere that we know is coming.

MARTIN: How does your office plan to address that?

FALL: You know, I have to tell you, this is what keeps me up at night. I had a meeting with other county partners yesterday about this, and I kind of just broke down because I told them, I don't know what the solution is. You know, how can I expect a volunteer that's getting paid $150 to go up to someone that's upset and ask them to go put their gun in their car because it's illegal to have it in a polling place?

Versus - some poll managers want to see an increase in police presence. And although I understand that concern, I also understand what that means for a lot of voters in Georgia and that that used to be a tactic for intimidation for voters who are still voting today. It's this balance I see in my head, the scale. I don't know what the solution is, but I think the consequences are severe.

MARTIN: One of the things that you've pointed out is that different things mean different things to different people, and you've got a very diverse electorate to deal with. To that end, in the last election, the former president used Georgia's voting machines as a linchpin for his false statements about the 2020 election being stolen.

Whether or not we can sort of agree that those statements are false, some people still do have lingering doubts about whether the election results will be legitimate and accurate. What can you tell us about the protocols to assure the public that the vote count will be accurate?

FALL: Absolutely. This is still a huge concern for my voters here in Cobb. There's a few kind of different things I've explained to voters. I actually spoke with two voters on election day demanding to vote a hand-marked paper ballot, and they wanted to have me explain to them why they legally couldn't do that.

So I walked them through the process, and I explained about how, you know, we test every single voting machine that we use before every single election. We put at least five different seals on each piece of voting equipment. That way, we know it hasn't been tampered with. We do all of our postelection audit.

For those voters who really just want to do a hand-marked paper ballot, I just started encouraging them that they vote absentee by mail because that is a hand-marked paper ballot.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, if you don't mind my asking, you accepted this position knowing all this drama was taking place.

FALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was just wondering, why did you agree to take this position, knowing that it was going to be hard?

FALL: I just thought to myself, if not me, then who?

MARTIN: Tate Fall is the elections director for Cobb County in Georgia. Tate Fall, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck.

FALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.