Adrian Fontes never thought he would need to draw on his training as a Marine in his job as a top election officer for Maricopa County, Arizona. Yet there he was in late 2020, meeting with members of the sheriff’s department and other law-enforcement agencies about establishing a secure perimeter around the building where Fontes’ staff was counting ballots. “We worried about an invasion into the building,” he says.
For several days in a row after the 2020 election, hundreds of pro-Trump protesters massed outside the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, where Fontes and his team worked. Chants of “stop the steal” rang out day and night. At one point, notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones joined the crowd and yelled into a megaphone, “Resistance is victory!” Other protesters dressed in tactical gear and carried firearms.
Fontes taught a marksmanship course in the Marines, and so he felt a chill when he recognized the weapons in the crowd. The rifles weren’t all that different from the one he carried in the military.
He and his family packed “go-bags” in case they needed to leave their home on short notice. They found back-up housing in case they needed to stay somewhere long-term. On one occasion, his children evacuated for several days. All the while, Fontes says, he, his employees, and a team of volunteers continued to count all 2.1 million ballots cast in the election. “We refused to allow these protesters to potentially disenfranchise Maricopa County voters,” he later said in testimony before Congress.
The anti-democracy movement that stalked Fontes and his employees culminated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. But a year after that attack, the fortunes of those who protected the 2020 election and those who sought to nullify it could hardly be more different.
Donald Trump remains wildly popular among his party. The Big Lie is the new litmus test for any aspiring Republican official on the national stage — and flogging that lie is the easiest way to climb the GOP ladder. It’s also become a profitable con, with countless conservative media personalities and minor MAGA celebrities boosting their brands by declaring the election stolen.
Those who defended the election, however, have been roundly, and severely, punished for it.
Mike Pence, who refused to join the attempt to overturn democracy, is an afterthought in the 2024 GOP primary. Pro-democracy Republicans like Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney have become pariahs, censured and shunned and attacked for daring to refute the Big Lie and hold Trump accountable for helping foment the unrest that led to the Jan. 6 attack.
But the people who have had it the worst are the people who — in the face of intense pressure and often under threat of physical harm — held the line for American democracy over the past year. They are the local officeholders and election officials who ran the 2020 election amidst a one-in-a-century pandemic and an onslaught of disinformation. They saw with startling clarity how close the country came to a real democratic crisis. “Democracy really is a tapestry. You can pull on a thread and it can come apart,” says Natalie Adona, the assistant clerk-recorder and registrar of voters in Nevada County, California. “Even though this insurrection was really rooted in a lie, in a way it doesn’t even matter. What matters is what people believe to be true, and if you don’t believe democracy is working for you… then everything we have goes away.”
They’ve endured death threats and xenophobic abuse, lost friends and grown estranged from family members. They’re not well-known, overworked and underpaid, not eyeing higher political office or angling for a lucrative book deal. And in many cases, they intend to remain on the job for the 2022 midterms and the presidential election two years later even as the vitriol and hatred aimed at them continues to this day.
Several months later, Fontes watched the January 6th insurrection unfold. He was shocked—but not surprised Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman who strode onto the Senate floor that day in his furs and Viking helmet, had protested outside his office arm-in-arm with Alex Jones chanting Fontes’ name back in November.
“I think the folks who don’t want democracy to live are slowly but surely getting what they want,” he says. “The slow-burn insurgency is afoot.”
Al Schmidt struggles with the notion of the first anniversary of January 6th. To him, it feels as if we’re on the 400th day of the 2020 general election, an event that never seems to end.
Schmidt, a Republican, was a city commissioner on the Philadelphia County Board of Elections in 2020. Starting in June 2020, Schmidt worked seven days a week preparing first for the city’s primary elections and then the general election. Closer to Election Day, he lived in a hotel connected to the Philadelphia convention center and spent every waking hour making sure the vote count went smoothly.
Then came the protests. Philly’s convention center was the vote-counting epicenter of the state. Outside, in the streets, rival demonstrations gave the scene a dark, almost carnival-like atmosphere. Every once in a while, Schmidt walked to a window and watched. This wasn’t Schmidt’s first political battle. He served as executive director of the city Republican Party, and a senior adviser to the state Republican Party. The Republicans were the only party he’d ever known.
Yet he didn’t recognize his party when he looked out on the angry crowd wrapped in Trump flags and screaming about election fraud. Having earned a PhD in political history, Schmidt knew he was witnessing history but struggled to grasp its meaning in the moment, close to the heat.
That would come later. What Schmidt focused on in that hectic, post-election moment was ensuring every valid vote got counted — even if it put him at odds with his own party. When Schmidt shot down the various theories put forward by Trump campaign lawyers, he became a target. Trump tweeted that Schmidt was a “RINO.” He and his wife received death threats: “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. TREASONOUS SCHMIDTS.” People harassed him and his family by posting their home address and the names of his kids. Security officers with the Philly Police Department’s dignitary protection unit guarded him and his family when they walked the dog, bought groceries, or took the kids sledding.
Schmidt announced he wouldn’t seek reelection to the Philadelphia city commission about a month after the election. He would go on take a job running a local nonpartisan good-government group, the Committee of Seventy. He says he had hoped that the anger and paranoia about the election would subside as time passed. He underestimated how much Trump and his campaign would seek to subvert the outcome, and how quickly Trump’s base would transform the election into a rallying cry.
He hoped that January 6th would shake people out “this derangement or whatever is going on.” Instead, it’s just settling in, he says, and now, even with some much-needed distance from the 2020 election and the insurrection, Schmidt is still trying to make sense of the state of the country and where it might be headed. He can’t quite believe that a diehard conservative like Liz Cheney is labeled a RINO for her repudiation of the Big Lie, nor that the litmus test for a “loyal” Republican these days is whether you believe the last election was stolen or not.
He thinks that question is a valuable one — but for the opposite reason his fellow Republicans do. “If you do believe the 2020 election was stolen, you’re either a fool or a liar,” he says.
So long as Republicans continue to deceive the public about the last election, Schmidt says it’s his duty and the duty of others in his position to counter those lies with truth. Even if it means he feels like he’s reliving the last election day after day. “We don’t really have any choice,” he says “even if it’s only being marginally successful and frequently feels like you’re hitting your head against the wall.”
Tommy Gong knew that the board of supervisors meeting scheduled for May 4, 2021 would be tense. Gong was the nonpartisan elections chief for San Luis Obispo County, located on the central coast of California north of Santa Barbara.
Biden had won the county by a 13-point margin, but there were plenty of passionate Trump supporters in San Luis Obispo as well, and in the spring of 2021, months after the vote-counting was over, the local Republican Party came to him with a demand. They wanted a full “forensic audit” of the last election.
Gong had heard about these partisan audits in other counties. Arizona’s state senate, he knew, had ordered a full recount of all 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. Gong had already explained to the local Republicans why he couldn’t give them unfettered access to the county’s voting system for their “audit.” There were strict chain of custody protocols to follow, confidentiality protections, and a state-level requirement that all of the materials used to conduct a federal election be retained and stored for 22 months.
At the May 4 supervisors meeting, Gong made his case as clearly and professionally as he could as to why a forensic audit wasn’t possible and why the 2020 vote count was fair and accurate. He mentioned that the county had audited a small sample of votes after the election, which had confirmed the result with the exception of two votes. For the public comment period, people submitted messages to be played at the hearing. Some fixated on the county’s Dominion Voting Systems equipment, a frequent target of election-fraud conspiracy theories. “These machines can be used to alter the outcome of elections,” one person said.
Another woman took aim at Gong directly. “Is Tommy Gong in any way in relationship [sic] to the Chinese Communist Party?” the woman asked in a message played aloud at the meeting.
Did they really say that, he thought. Then the twinge of recognition: Yes, someone really just said that. An affable, chatty fellow, Gong was a third-generation Californian. He went to Cal-Berkeley. He had family scattered across the state. The slur made national headlines and Gong got calls from major newspapers.
He had already started thinking about leaving town. He would be closer to some family in the Bay Area. He would have the chance to work in a bigger county. He also couldn’t deny that the attack on him factored into his thinking as well. Later, as he thought back on that exchange, he wondered: “Where is this going?” (Gong says a woman approached him a few weeks later, identified herself as the person who made the Communist comment, and apologized to him.)
In June, he resigned from his position as San Luis Obispo’s top election official and took a new job as the deputy elections chief in Contra Costa County, which covers the East Bay suburbs. In his new position, Gong is helping create a multi-county coalition to help educate voters about how elections work and to counteract the spread of misinformation about voting.
“This is really becoming something much larger than election officials have ever experienced,” he says of the spread of election-related lies. “I think we have a huge challenge ahead of us having to deal with this. That’s what I’m recognizing right now. 2022 is going to be the first testing ground for this.”
The targeting of election officials didn’t end after the 2020 election was certified and Joe Biden began his presidency. Adrian Fontes, the former Maricopa County recorder, says he’s still on the receiving end of threatening messages. “Some of what we experienced after is still happening,” he says. “Fighting authoritarianism and fascism is a dangerous thing.”
A June 2021 survey of election workers by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU found that 1 in 3 had received threats during or after the last election. Many have quit in the year since the election and January 6th.
Yet others say they feel compelled to stay on the front lines of democracy at this precarious moment in history.
Adona, the election official from Nevada County, California, says she’s heard firsthand accounts from her colleagues about the abuse they’ve faced. “I heard stories of election officials getting screamed at, followed to their offices, chased down the street,” she says. “The effect is just as devastating as an individual.”
Nevertheless, Adona is running for her boss’s seat to be the county’s top election official. “In a way, I feel a deep responsibility in part because of what happened on January 6th to continue on with this work,” she says. “I don’t know that I could be happy doing anything else, and I know there are a lot of my peers who feel the same way.”
Adrian Fontes is a candidate for Arizona secretary of state. He sees his campaign as part of “a full-blown battle” against the “insurgency” that wants to tear down democracy in America. Fontes says he’s running “not because I’m angry. I fear for the future of this republic. I fear my children will live in a world where they cannot vote.”