Trump won Texas county in landslide. His supporters still hounded the elections admin until she resigned.
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
An elections administrator in North Texas submitted her resignation Friday, following a monthslong effort by residents and officials loyal to former President Donald Trump to force her out of office.
Michele Carew, who had overseen scores of elections during her 14-year career, had found herself transformed into the public face of an electoral system that many in the heavily Republican Hood County had come to mistrust, which ProPublica and The Texas Tribune covered earlier this month.
Her critics sought to abolish her position and give her duties to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.
Carew, who was hired to run elections in Hood County two-and-a-half months before the contested presidential race, said in an interview that she worried that the forces that tried to drive her out will spread to other counties in the state.
“When I started out, election administrators were appreciated and highly respected,” she said. “Now we are made out to be the bad guys.”
Critics accused Carew of harboring a secret liberal agenda and of violating a decades-old elections law, despite assurances from the Texas secretary of state that she was complying with Texas election rules.
Carew said she is joining an Austin-based private company and will work to help local elections administrator offices across the country run more efficiently. She will oversee her final election in early November before leaving Nov. 12.
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration, said Carew’s departure is the latest example of an ominous trend toward independent election administrators being forced out in favor of partisan officials.
“She is not the first and won’t be the last professional election official to have to leave this profession because of the toll it is taking, the bullies and liars who are slandering these professionals,” said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “We are losing a generation of professional expertise. We are only beginning to feel the effects.”
Though experts say it is difficult to determine how many elections officials have left their positions nationally, states like Pennsylvania and Ohio have seen numerous departures. According to the AP, about a third of Pennsylvania’s county election officials have left in the last year and a half; in Ohio, one in four directors or deputy auditors of elections have left in the southwestern part of the state, according to The New York Times.
Hood County would seem an unlikely place for disputes over the last presidential election given that Trump won 81% of the vote there, one of his largest margins of victory in the state. Across the country, partisans’ demands for audits have mostly focused on counties and states carried by President Joe Biden, particularly those that went for Trump four years earlier.
But Texas, despite going for Trump by 6 percentage points, has seen its fair share of blowback. Last month, the Texas secretary of state announced a “comprehensive forensic audit” of four of the state’s largest counties hours after Trump issued a public letter demanding audits of the state’s results.
Before that, in July, Texas passed sweeping voting legislation that critics say disenfranchises vulnerable voters and unfairly targets administrators and other elections officials. Among the law’s provisions are new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.
On Saturday, after blasting the four-county audit plan as “weak,” Trump threatened the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives with a primary challenge if the speaker didn’t advance a bill that would allow audits in more counties.
In Hood County, the local GOP executive committee likewise issued warnings to Republican officials who defended Carew. In July, the committee threatened County Judge Ron Massingill with a social media campaign that would tell voters he was “incapable of providing them with free and fair elections” if he didn’t convene the county’s elections commission to discuss Carew’s termination.
Massingill refused, arguing that no political party should be able to direct the activities of the independent elections administrator. Katie Lang, the county clerk and vice chair of the county’s election commission, convened the meeting and moved to fire Carew. Carew survived the vote by a 3-2 margin, with Massingill and the county tax assessor, both Republicans, joining the Hood County Democratic chair.
Republican County Chair David Fischer called on county commissioners to dissolve the independent office of elections administrator and transfer election duties to Lang, which he said would make the election administration process more accountable to the county’s Republican majority.
Counties in Texas can choose between hiring an independent elections administrator, who is meant to be insulated from political pressures, or letting a county official, often an elected county clerk, run elections. County clerks, who manage functions like property records and birth certificates, run elections in many of the state’s smallest counties.
Fischer has declined to speak with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
On social media, Lang has shared “Stop the Steal” and “Impeach Biden” memes and videos. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Lang did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, but she previously told the Hood County News she wished Carew “the best in her future endeavors.”
Over the last year, Carew has come under fire for everything from her connection with the League of Women Voters, which critics say is anti-Trump, to her interest in a $29,000 grant, funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that would have been used to pay for costs related to the pandemic.
She was also accused of harboring a hidden agenda after refusing to allow a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump One America News Network into a private training for election professionals in March when she headed the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.
The most sustained criticism of Carew came from critics who accused her of violating the law by not adhering to an obscure election law that requires ballots to be consecutively numbered.
But seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and voter privacy, and that consecutive numbering is not required to conduct effective election audits.
Despite the toll the last year has taken on her, Carew on Monday remained defiant. “I’m leaving on my own accord,” she said. “I’m the one who wins in the end.”