- US electors will cast their votes on Monday, officially securing Joe Biden’s election as the nation’s 46th president.
- While the Electoral College meeting is largely pro forma, it’s an honor bestowed on politically involved citizens that’s worth celebrating.
- This year, though, electors have been the target of intimidating messages from extremists seeking to pressure them to vote for Donald Trump instead.
- Several electors spoke to Insider about this experience and why it won’t can’t sway them from staying the course on December 14.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Being appointed as a US elector is often a once in a lifetime honor that politically involved citizens look forward to and celebrate.
But this year, a group of extremists who believe conspiracy theories that the election was rigged or stolen from President Donald Trump have dampened the experience by aggressively trying to intimidate electors not to vote for President-elect Joe Biden on Monday.
Electors Khary Penebaker, of Wisconsin; Van Johnson, of Georgia; and Mark Miller, of Michigan, are among those who were on the receiving end of some of the pressure in recent weeks. All three are Democrats, and say they won’t be swayed by the concerning behavior.
More than a month after most US voters cast their ballots in the 2020 election, the 538 electors will cast their vote to officially make Biden the next president. Americans don’t directly elect the president. The founders devised the Electoral College system whereby electors do. Most states use a winner-takes-all system to give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes in that state.
This year, electors are receiving threatening messages from Trump supporters
Penebaker, who’s also a vocal gun reform activist, told Insider that the threatening messages started coming as early as election night, and they were all on social media.
Most of them came from Trump loyalists using irrational logic to try to convince him that he should be a “faithless elector” by casting his ballot for Trump instead. Some messages said they didn’t believe Penebaker’s vote should count in the electoral college.
“What they failed to realize, No. 1, is that I committed to voting for Joe Biden as an elector. No. 2 is that I voted for Joe Biden in the primary as a citizen,” Penebaker said. “I’m a proud Democrat. The last thing I’m going to do is go against the things that I stand for just because of someone wants to harass me or come up with some crazy logic about why I shouldn’t.”
On Sunday, one man visited Penebaker’s personal Instagram page and posted a message on a photo of his son trying to pressure him to vote for Trump.
“I took my son to get a cool haircut, so I took the picture and put it on Instagram. This guy comes on and comments that I shouldn’t vote for Joe Biden,” Penebaker said. “I responded that, do you honestly think that behaving this way, commenting on my son’s picture, is a way to convince me to not to do something I want to do?”
While there were no direct threats in the notes to the three electors, the nature of them is concerning at a time when armed Trump supporters have surrounded the homes of Democrats and Republicans who they disagree with, the electors told Insider.
Mob-like protesters have targeted election officials and protested outside their homes
This month, mob-like protesters have targeted elected officials in several states.
In Michigan, dozens of armed protesters surrounded the home of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, screaming at her while she tried to watch a Christmas movie with her son, NPR reported.
They targeted her because of her role overseeing elections in the state.
“At least one individual could be heard shouting ‘you’re murderers’ within earshot of her child’s bedroom,” officials told NPR.
In Idaho, hundreds of anti-lockdown protesters gathered outside a county health district headquarters and at least three board members’ homes as the county considered changes to COVID-19 safety mandates.
A county commissioner had to leave the meeting early after she learned protesters were outside her house, where her 12-year-old son was home alone, the Idaho Press reported.
Earlier this year, armed lockdown protesters stormed the Michigan state capitol in opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s extension of the state’s stay-at-home order. The FBI also stopped a plot by a far-right extremist group to kidnap Whitmer.
“While I would say the overwhelming majority of them wouldn’t do anything to us, I don’t think they’ll engage in any violence towards us, but those who are more extreme are the ones that will,” Penebaker told Insider. “They will take this all personally and believe that they have been robbed of something sacred.”
“Those are the people who are going to lash out in violence,” Penebaker, who is Black, added. “And the people that they are likely to attack are going to be people who look like me.”
Johnson, who is also the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, has also been targeted by extremists that he refers to a “Trumpocrats” in the last month.
“These are not Republicans as I’ve known,” he said.
Johnson, a former law enforcement officer, said the messages his staff has received haven’t been outright threats of violence, but that his office has increased security protocols to keep everyone safe.
“When it was announced I was an elector, we would get those little phone calls about, people just saying – I wouldn’t say threatening things – but certainly mean and inappropriate things,” Johnson said. “During the times we live in, anything is possible. You can’t take your personal safety for granted.”
In Michigan, Miller, a town clerk in Kalamazoo, said he heard from Trump supporters in the days after the election, but the emails have since stopped.
He told Insider that he’s aware of the potential for protests during the Monday meeting of the electors, but isn’t too worried.
“Several of us right immediately after the election received some emails from folks spinning wild conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and pedophile rings and all this kind of garbage, and telling us that we shouldn’t vote for him,” Miller said. “Yes, we did have situations in Michigan, in Lansing, with people showing up with long guns in protests against Gov. Whitmer’s measures against the virus. So it’s possible that people could show up, but I’m going to trust that our security will be taken care of, and I’m not overly concerned.”
A virus and political strife will dampen this year’s meeting of the electors
Penebaker attended a briefing over Zoom this week preparing electors for the event on Monday.
“Because of the pandemic, the pomp and circumstance and, you know, the funner part of it wont be happening,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty straightforward. There are six certificates that each one of us needs to sign, six signatures for each elector. We’ll be in a large room that allows for social distancing, and we’ll be masked.”
The event will be closed to the public, but will be live-streamed.
During the briefing, there were advisories about how to avoid possible protesters, but that information is not being released to the public for safety reasons, Penebaker said.
Miller and Johnson also said the meetings in their states will be a little different this year.
“Under COVID conditions, I’d like to get a picture next to the governor, but I dont think that will happen,” Miller said. “We’ll be socially distanced, we’ll be masked, we will have a table where all the certificates will be laid out and there are multiple copies … we’ll sign our name on the line a number of times.”
“It’s kind of pro forma, but it’s an honor nonetheless,” he added.
In some states, like Nevada, electors won’t even be meeting in person.
“The Nevada electors are meeting virtually via Zoom. While there may be increased activity at the Capitol in Carson City, we have not had any threats and do not anticipate any,” Jennifer Russell, spokeswoman for Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, told Insider. “None of the meeting components are taking place here. Each of the electors will participate from a location of his [or] her choosing.”
Under any conditions, being an elector is a privilege
Penebaker told Insider that, on some level, he can sympathize with some of the men and women who have been consumed by the conspiracy theories and propelled into what they believe is activism.
“It’s honestly unfortunate because these folks have been lied to by Trump and his enablers. People are being made to believe that there is this widespread conspiracy where Democrats and Republicans have stolen this election, but only from Donald Trump,” he said. “They keep believing these things and it’s going to drive them crazy and it’s going to drive them to act violently. That’s not what a democracy is supposed to be like; it’s not what this country is about.”
Penebaker said the behavior of these people has ventured out of the realm of politics and become “cult-like.”
“I think people, at their core, just want to believe in something. It’s unfortunate that the thing they believe in is based on lies,” he said. “With cults, those cult leaders can make you do hideous things; whether that’s harming yourself, someone you love, or someone you don’t even like.”
Johnson agrees that the divisiveness of 2020 is like nothing he’s seen in politics before and believes that it will stick around for a while.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to normal, unfortunately. I think the lines have been drawn in the sand, and the lines of stability have been forever blurred,” Johnson said. “Long after the election is over, I think for quite some time, you’ll still have people who are doubting the election.”
Despite the negativity, though, none of the electors would let these tensions sway them from carrying out their duty on Monday.
“Have you considered that John Lewis walked across the Pettus Bridge knowing the brutality that was waiting on the other side and still kept going; the threats that Dr. King got and he still kept going; the threats that Malcolm X got and he still kept going?” Penebaker said. “I don’t have a fraction of what those amazing human beings had, and I’m going to keep going, too. There’s nothing that they can do that will stop my vote on Monday.”
Capitol police in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment about security on Monday.
“I feel exhilarated and humbled and cautious all at the same time,” Johnson said. “It’s just a waiting game, it’s running out the clock. Monday at 12 noon is the day Georgia will cast 16 votes for the president and the vice president of the United States, and I’ll be blessed to be among them.”