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Pressure from Trump loyalists is forcing this Texas election official to resign

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

On the program Friday, we heard from former federal election security official Matt Masterson. He's cataloging what different administrators have experienced in countering baseless lies about fraud in the 2020 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MATT MASTERSON: They are dejected. And, frankly, it's been traumatic for them.

MCCAMMON: That tracks for Michele Carew. She's the elections administrator for Hood County, Texas, and she's stepping down next month amid mounting pressure from supporters of former President Donald Trump to yield her duties to the county clerk. At a meeting in July, Carew says local GOP officials and voters accused her of disloyalty to the party, even though her position is nonpartisan and even though Trump overwhelmingly won in Hood County.

MICHELE CAREW: In all honesty, it was probably one of the hardest days of my life. I have been in an elections career for, you know, well over a decade. I've never been in a situation to where the people that I was working for didn't believe in me and didn't trust me.

MCCAMMON: Carew's story is detailed in an investigative piece by Texas Tribune and ProPublica reporter Jeremy Schwartz. I spoke to them both about what this could mean for elections nationwide, starting with the demands that led Carew to step down.

CAREW: The small group of people that are Republicans here in Hood County, they - No. 1, they did not want me consulting with the secretary of state's office. It is their belief that the secretary of state's office assisted in any wrongdoing in the 2020 November election. They literally wanted me to do as they said. It was black and white; no gray. It is their way or no way.

MCCAMMON: Now, again, Trump won Hood County, Texas, by a lot - over 80% of the vote. Jeremy, as you were reporting on this story, what did you learn about why voters wanted Michele out, why they were so focused on this?

JEREMY SCHWARTZ: Well, Hood County is an interesting place. It's a fiercely Republican county about an hour southwest from Fort Worth and that really has a history of some far-right positions. And in some ways, what we were seeing in Hood County was this effort at control of the levers of elections there in the county. This group that Michele alluded to, A, wanted to basically tell her how to do her job as an election administrator, how she should be, you know, something so basic as counting the ballots, and by the end wanted her position abolished and placed under that county clerk.

MCCAMMON: Michele, you've expressed concern that the same forces that drove you out of your position will spread beyond Hood County to other places in Texas. Tell us what you mean by that.

CAREW: So these kinds of attacks, this constant questioning of the 2020 election, I feel that it has caused a ripple effect, and we're being targeted. I do know of several other elections administrators who are also going through this. And I really want the people in Texas to know that the elections administrators in Texas, we run elections fairly. Across Texas, the voters were counted. They were counted fairly. And all the voters in Texas were represented.

MCCAMMON: Many Republicans who oversee elections have come under this kind of pressure from Trump loyalists around the country. I interviewed one this summer, Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who said he felt that Trump, quote, "didn't create this environment, he exploited it." As we head into off-year elections next month and as we look ahead to 2022 and even 2024, how much influence do you think Trump is still wielding in the party compared to last year?

CAREW: Personally, I feel like he has all the control. And what's really kind of shameful and hurtful for our voters is people just latch on, and they believe everything they hear, all the misinformation, all of the lies, when in all honesty, they should be more involved.

MCCAMMON: Jeremy, based on your reporting, what can you say about how widespread this is, this kind of pressure on elections officials?

SCHWARTZ: We've got anecdotal evidence of really dramatic numbers of departures in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and sort of these dire projections of, you know, losing a generation of election administrators. And the toll that that would take, you know, I think is something that very few people have thought about just in terms of pulling off these elections. They're incredibly complex, incredibly difficult tasks, which was a big learning experience on my end doing this story, just how much goes into planning and executing an election. And the idea that these would be in the hands of non-professionals, let alone partisan hands, should be concerning.

MCCAMMON: Jeremy talked about losing a generation of elections officials, which makes me wonder who will replace you, Michele?

CAREW: Well, I can tell you that my job has been posted for a week now, and they've received one application. And unfortunately, based upon the reputation that Hood County has, I think they're going to really have a hard time finding someone who comes with experience.

MCCAMMON: You told Jeremy, Michele, that you're the one who wins in the end because you're leaving on your terms. But, I mean, this is bigger than that, isn't it? I mean, this is about trust in our democracy, our election system. How worried are you about free and fair elections in your county and in the country?

CAREW: That's a really fair question. And my answer to that would be I'm scared. As a matter of fact, I'm frightened, because when I accepted this position, it was between me and one of the insiders to the group, that small group here in town, that a person had no experience, but it was one of their people. And that's what they want. These small groups of people get together. They come up with their own rules and regulations, and then they try to take over every office on the county level. It's really scary when you think about that.

MCCAMMON: What do you think could happen?

CAREW: I don't think that they would have free and fair elections. I feel that elections would be ran according to whomever they're listening to, but not according to the Texas election code.

MCCAMMON: Jeremy, based on your reporting on this issue, what are you going to be watching in terms of election security and public trust in elections?

SCHWARTZ: What I'm focused on right now is looking at how things are unfolding for other election administrators in the state. You know, we have 254 counties in Texas, and most of them fly well under the radar. And we know that we have had quite a bit of turnover since the November 3 election. So, you know, I feel like my duty at the moment is to get a sense of how deeply this is occurring in the state and, again, depending on the severity of it, what does that mean for 2022?

MCCAMMON: Michele, do you see any solutions here, anything that would help to restore trust in the system?

CAREW: My belief is if you have any questions about the way that elections are ran where you live, contact your elections administrator. Work side by side with them. Come in. Volunteer. Come watch everything. And once you see all the steps that are in place and how the best practices are put into place, I think they will understand more. But until someone steps into our shoes or witnesses the things that we do, then they're always going to have doubts in their minds. They're just going to feed off of their negativity.

MCCAMMON: We've been speaking with Michele Carew, outgoing Hood County, Texas, election administrator, and investigative journalist Jeremy Schwartz of the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

Thank you both for your time.

SCHWARTZ: Thanks so much.

CAREW: Thanks for having us.

MCCAMMON: In a statement to NPR, Hood County GOP Chair David Fischer denied wanting any elections administrator to do the bidding of any party, adding that it was never their wish for Michele Carew to leave, quote, "only that she comply with Texas election law." He did not specify how she had broken any laws. The county clerk has not responded to our request for comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LORDE SONG, "THE LOUVRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.