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James Young, Louisville's former director of elections, took to Twitter to defend the integrity of election workers. Twelve thousand retweets later, he explains why.
With a background in election administration—first as the director of elections in Louisville, Kentucky and now working at a company that helps to make elections more accessible to people with disabilities—James Young is accustomed to fielding questions about voting.
But the inquiries he got about this year’s election were different. In the days following the Nov. 3 contest, all of the questions—from friends, professional acquaintances and family members—focused on the same topic: whether the election had been rigged to ensure that President Donald Trump would lose to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who prevailed in the race and is now the president-elect.
“I had a very, very close, personal friend who is a registered Republican—as am I—send me a conspiracy theory suggesting that election administrators were knowingly coordinating to prevent Donald Trump from winning re-election,” said Young, who is now a regional sales manager for the company Inclusion Solutions.
“Of course," he added, "I realized there was nothing that was going to change this person’s mind, and after I again reiterated my work with these individuals that he was suggesting had the fix in, he asked, ‘Well, whose side are you on?’”
Despite claims to the contrary leveled by Trump and his allies, there's no evidence that widespread voter fraud or irregularities tipped the race for Biden. And Young, who oversaw elections in Louisville for more than four years before moving to the private sector, was stunned by his friend's comments. Young's job, then and now, requires close work with election administrators, whom he’d only ever known to be nonpartisan, diligent public servants who did their jobs carefully.
“But I realized that not just my friend, but a large segment of the population, are beginning to view election administrators, or ‘vote counters,’ as being on a side,” he said. “And the fact that we’re beginning to view the outcome of the election as depending on the partisanship of the people running it is not healthy. It decays the system. I think that was a tipping point for me.”
On Nov. 11, Young took his concerns to Twitter, introducing himself as a former elections administrator and a registered Republican who actively works “with hundreds of jurisdictions across the U.S.”
“For many reasons, the past week has been difficult,” he wrote at the top of a thread that has since been retweeted more than 12,000 times. “If you seek the truth about US elections, please keep reading.”
Young detailed his experience, noting that voter fraud is real but exceedingly rare (in nearly five years in election administration in Kentucky, he said, “I saw less than a handful” of cases of potentially illegal activity). Allegations of widespread fraud among election workers were particularly offensive, he added, because those officials, “appointed or elected, are REAL people. They do not work for political parties. They work for you.”
Young continued the thread with photos and stories of election administrators in several states, including Georgia and Texas. His goal, he said, was to remind people that the employees they’re maligning are real people, too.
“Everyone in those particular photos are election administrators. They work in the office, they’re hired by their counties to actually administer the process,” he said. “These are the people that make sure your name is spelled right on the voting rolls, that your address is updated, that oversee the programming and printing of the ballots and the tabulation of the votes.”
Government employees, Young said, are often loath to attract attention or tell their own stories, and in some cases are discouraged from doing so, “because the process is not about them.”
“But they’ve been politicized and accused of things, so my goal here was to put a face to the process that most people don’t understand,” he said. “I think that’s so important.”
Many election administrators Young has worked with have been frustrated this year, both by the myriad changes they’ve had to make with little notice and the rampant conspiracy theories about the way they do their jobs. They've had to install ballot drop-boxes, for example, and clear up persistent rumors about the validity of mail-in voting during a pandemic.
“These people have spent more time, during a raging pandemic, opening up ballots, counting ballots and updating voter registration information than they have with their own families,” Young said. “They are underpaid, overworked, and doing their best, so to still have their integrity being questioned is very frustrating. Many officials, both at the state and local level, have thanked me for kind of bringing to light the human aspect of this. It hasn’t been easy on anyone.”
Reactions to Young’s viral posts were mixed. Some people thanked him for his statements, while others warned that his personal experience didn’t negate the presence of fraud or conspiracy in the system. That’s disheartening, he said—but he’s hopeful that even skeptics might take away the key message that the election of a candidate you don’t like does not mean that democracy itself is somehow flawed.
“I’ve been saying this repetitively: it’s really important to remember that simply because the outcome of an election didn’t go the way that you desired does not mean the system is broken,” he said. “These election administrators don’t administer the process based on party or the lens of their preference, and that’s really important to remember.”
Ironically, in spite of all the challenges, the 2020 general election went fairly well, Young added. States successfully implemented large-scale mail-in voting, ballots were counted in a relatively timely manner, and thus far there’s no evidence that even in-person voting contributed to a widespread surge of coronavirus cases.
“I used to say that election administrators are like NFL kickers—you never hear about them until things go bad,” Young said. “But in this case, we’re questioning them even when things went right. I think we have so much to be proud of—just the fact that the election happened. We should applaud these thousands of offices across the country for the job that they did do.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.