You’ll often hear, in discussions about President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and ultimate failure to do so, victorious declarations that the institutions held. The theme of Tuesday’s public hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee was: That takeaway is a little glib.
“But what does that really mean?” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said in his opening remarks of the hearing. “Democratic institutions aren’t abstractions or ideas. They are local officials who oversee elections … people in whom we placed our trust that they will carry out their duties. But what if they don’t?”
The committee sought to show Tuesday that the institutions held because a few key people here or there chose not just to risk their jobs or careers, but their lives and their reputations as well, to do so. In the words of Ruby Freeman, mother of witness Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a Fulton County elections worker subject to viral conspiratorial hatred, “Do you know how it feels to have the President of the United States target you?”
Plenty of rank-and-file Republicans entertained Trump’s ever-escalating lies and conspiracy theories about the stolen election because it was easier to do so. The effect was to pass the responsibility further and further upwards until it reached people with both moral and constitutional duties to tell the president “no,” and that everything he was proposing was illegal, unconstitutional, and based on lies. Strong institutions should require such bureaucrats to be neutral messengers with nothing to fear. Instead, they had to accept the ruination of their lives.
Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, was one of those figures who had to tell the president “no” if he felt democracy was worth keeping. He was under immense pressure from both Trump and his chief goons, like Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, to submit an alternate slate of electors for Trump. He repeatedly asked for evidence of the wild claims they were making—that there were thousands of illegal immigrants and dead people voting, for example—but they could never provide it. Bowers recalled Giuliani saying to him, at one point, that “we’ve got lots of theories, we just don’t have the evidence.”
Bowers repeatedly had to tell Giuliani and other members of the president’s team that “you are asking me to do something that is against my oath, and I will not break my oath.” Bowers, a Mormon, said it is “a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired.”
“And so for me to do that, because somebody just asked me to?” He continued. “It’s foreign to my very being. I will not do it.”
Trump’s base did not throw Bowers a ticker-tape parade for doing his job. He testified that he received “in excess of 20,000 emails and tens of thousands of voicemails and texts, which saturated our offices and we were unable to work, at least communicate.” At his home, meanwhile, he said he now has “to worry what will happen on Saturdays, because we have various groups come by.” They “have had panel trucks with videos of me proclaiming me to be a pedophile, and a pervert, and a corrupt politician, and blaring loudspeakers in my neighborhood.” They threaten him and his neighbors. Still.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, similarly, refused to use his position to help Trump overturn an election result—or, as Trump infamously implored Raffensperger in a Jan. 2021 phone, to “find” enough votes to put him over the top. Both Raffensperger and his chief operating officer, Gabe Sterling, testified in Tuesday’s hearings as well about the threats that Trump’s lies had brought to them, their families, and their staff. Raffensperger revealed, among other things, that someone broke into his widowed daughter-in-law’s house.
“And so we’re very concerned about her safety also,” he said.
You could, at least, say that these elected officers knew what they were getting into when they ran for public office, even though the effort to overturn the 2020 election did push certain imaginative frontiers.
But election workers should not have any reasonable expectation that, one day, their lives could be ruined when the president claims they’ve seen them with “suitcases stuffed with votes.”
Shaye Moss, a Fulton County election worker in Georgia, was the subject of that rumor. The lie was debunked as feverish nonsense the instant it came up in late 2020, but it has spent nearly two years haunting Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, who was also in the video. (Giuliani has accused Moss of passing her mother “USB drives” of votes, “as if they were vials of heroin or cocaine.” Moss replied in the hearing that she was passing her mother a ginger mint.)
Her response to Rep. Adam Schiff’s question about how her life has been affected by Trump making her a central character in his lies about the stolen election is worth quoting at length.
It turned my life upside-down. I no longer give out my business card … I don’t want anyone knowing my name. I don’t want to go anywhere with my mom because she might yell my name out over the grocery aisle, or something. I don’t go to the grocery store at all. I haven’t been anywhere at all. I’ve gained about 60 pounds. I just don’t do nothing anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. I second-guess everything that I do. It’s affected my life in a major way. In every way. All because of lies, for me doing my job, same thing I’ve been doing forever.
Moss left her job, as did everyone else in the viral video that turned her life upside-down. “There is no permanent election worker or supervisor in that video who’s still there,” she said. It’s not just her or her colleagues in Fulton County. Election officials are quitting in droves because the simple act of tallying votes has become a dangerous profession.
The committee doesn’t want their work to be viewed as a simple history lesson, and it doesn’t just want people like Bowers, Raffensperger, or Moss to be honored as figures who saved the Republic during that one perilous moment (cut to credits). Their point is that this isn’t history, and that one perilous moment isn’t over. If elected officials are replaced with goons who choose their own personal convenience over the preservation of representative democracy, or the very workers who count the votes are chased out and replaced with political functionaries, then the institutions don’t stand much of a chance. These people kept the institutions afloat. What if the next ones don’t?