Emily Cook remembers that she never ate her blueberry muffin.

It was election day in November 2022, and Cook was the deputy director in the election office in Luzerne county, an industrial swath of north-east Pennsylvania. Soon after voting started, Cook started to hear piecemeal reports of a problem at the polls: some locations didn’t have enough paper. When she got to her office, multiple phones were thrust into her hands, each with a crisis. By the time election day was over, she had forgotten about the muffin.

Then came the harassment. In the following weeks, people started showing up at meetings, furious about the incident, believing the mishap had been an intentional effort to suppress the vote (an investigation attributed the problem to human error). Cook and other people in the election office received vile threats.

Cook, who is 26 and grew up in Luzerne county, recognized many of the people making them.

“You get very numb,” she said. “It would be lying if I said I didn’t take it personally. I know exactly who made those comments and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.”

Walter Griffith, the county controller whose office is down the hall from Cook’s, was blunter. “She’s been through some shit,” he said. “Some serious shit.”

The problems that plague Luzerne county are a crystallization of a significant problem in election offices across the country. Since 2020, when Donald Trump and his allies began to question and overturn the results of the election, a flood of election officials have left the profession, facing threats and harassment. In Pennsylvania, top officials in 40 of the state’s 67 counties had left between the 2020 election and late 2023, according to the state’s top election official.

Veteran Dave Ragan waves a flag to attract supporters during the campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 2020. Photograph: Sopa Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

That means people like Cook are thrust into even higher-pressure roles during an even higher-stakes election year.

About a month ago, the director of the election bureau abruptly resigned after roughly a year. Cook, who has also served as an administrative assistant and operations manager, took over the job and was named the acting election director with a little over two months before the state’s primary election.

On a Thursday morning in early March, Cook’s phone rang nearly constantly as she sat in her office. She was waiting for pollbooks to be delivered, and the deadline to send out ballots to overseas and military voters was just two days away, but she still didn’t have a final list of candidates because of pending court challenges.

“My word of the week has been triage,” she said. “We are triaging the tasks at hand.”

Cook’s office is decorated with signs of someone who doesn’t really have time for, well, bullshit. “Sorry, the time for complaints was yesterday,” says one sign taped above her desk. Outside her office, a quote from her mother is written on a whiteboard: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here … we’ll train you!”

She also has a folded piece of notebook paper tucked away at her desk with all the names of people who have had her job in recent years. On her first day there, in 2021, the election director told her he was resigning. She is the seventh person since the fall of 2019. Steve Hahn, the acting deputy director, started at the elections bureau last fall.

Walter Griffith, 69, Luzerne county controller, sits for a portrait in his office in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday. Photograph: Hannah Yoon/The Guardian

High turnover in the election office has become the norm in Luzerne county.

“It has become the expectation that if somebody walks into this office, they’re not going to be here long term,” Cook said. “You kind of just document everything that you can, prepare as best as you can, at least in my opinion. Learn as much from whoever’s sitting here while they’re here. And we can keep moving forward.”

But the high turnover has also led to some high-profile mistakes. In 2020, the county made national news after nine military ballots were found in the trash (an investigation later attributed the error to an inexperienced temporary employee). In 2021, an oversight led to the wrong header showing up on ballots telling some Republican primary voters they were voting on a Democratic ballot. And in 2022, 16 of the county’s 143 polling locations ran out of paper. That led to the county nearly not certifying the election and a congressional hearing.

Election officials become the clear target for the errors.

They’re leaving the field because in many cases they’re practically being driven from it. Because of the environment in their communities. Or because of the environment in their offices that they serve in. That is new. That is different from what I’ve been seeing in the last 20 years,” said Tammy Patrick, the CEO of the National Association of Election Officials.

Emily Cook, 26, flips through ballot proofing papers in Wilkes-Barre. Photograph: Hannah Yoon/The Guardian

“You do have that loss of institutional knowledge. Elections are incredibly complex. They’re complicated. The devil is in the details and there are many details.”

Cook saw that first-hand. “There would just be a general sense of not knowing exactly what to do,” she said. “Or not knowing what someone in the past had done for equipment or supplies. Or why did we sign this contract for this vendor?”

Sometimes, new election officials can administer smaller municipal or county-wide elections to learn the ropes and “get their sea legs”, Patrick said. But “when they come into a position in a presidential election year, it’s a lot to learn and a very short runway”.

New election officials today also face a highly charged environment. As Trump and allies continue to push the narrative that American elections are rigged, any mistake can be weaponized.

When or if a mistake occurs in this environment it is never just recognized that: ‘You know what, this person has been on the job for a few months, this is complex, they made a mistake,’” Patrick said.

“Any error, whether it’s a proofing error or a printing error or a cut-and-paste problem, that gets turned into challenging whether or not that person was trying to steal the election or rig the election.”

There was shock when Trump flipped Luzerne county, long a Democratic stronghold in 2016, said John Kennedy, a political science professor at West Chester University in south-eastern Pennsylvania. While Trump won it again in 2020, Biden was able to claw back some of the voters he lost in 2020, something he’ll try to do more of this year as he seeks to win Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state in the US presidential election.

The political uncertainty only makes running an election more fraught.

But it’s hard to pinpoint a singular cause for all of the turnover in the elections bureau. Some of it may be structural – in Luzerne county the bureau is overseen by two heads. There is a volunteer board that’s responsible for setting policy and a county manager, appointed by the county council, who is responsible for executing policy. Only the county manager has the authority to hire and fire.

Poll workers sit in a training class at the Luzerne county elections building in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday. Photograph: Hannah Yoon/The Guardian

Eryn Harvey, the Luzerne county elections director who resigned in February, did not respond to an interview request. County officials did not offer more details on why she left.

“I think there was more people fighting with Eryn than actually doing the work,” said Griffith, the county comptroller, who led protests criticizing the election bureau after the ballot fiasco in 2020. “She came in, she wasn’t knowledgable … she wasn’t strong-willed.

“When you’re in charge of something and people are undermining you, it makes it really hard to run the department, especially in elections.”

There may be a cyclical element. Having an inexperienced person leading the election bureau can lead to mistakes, which ramps up harassment, and then leads to that person leaving and a new person starting.

Protesters hold placards as they chant slogans during the demonstration in Wilkes-Barre on 6 November 2020. Photograph: Zuma Press Inc/Alamy

Beth Gilbert, who served as the acting director from the fall of 2022 to early 2023, said that the county needed to cast a wider net in hiring for the job. Luzerne county’s election director recently has been paid about $65,000 – one of the lowest rates for a county of its size, according a 2023 survey of local elected officials by the elections and voting information center at Reed College

“My suggestion would be to search for a qualified elections director,” said Gilbert, who now works as the voting engagement organizer for Action Together NEPA, a progressive group. “Do a national survey, increase the pay, make it appealing to want to work in Luzerne county elections bureau so you’re not just getting local candidates.”

Whether she chose to or not, Cook is taking the reins at a critical moment for the county and hoping to stabilize things. Officials are working to standardize election office procedures that had not been written down. They’re also trying to rebuild public trust and confidence in the county’s elections and be more transparent – recently posting draft versions of the county ballot on the website for public feedback.

A key partner in managing the chaos is Romilda Crocamo, the county manager. Over the objections of her friends and family, she applied for the job last year in part because she wanted to fix the dysfunction around elections.

In 2020, she had been a lawyer for Luzerne county as it dealt with the fallout from the discarded ballots. She said she’ll never forget dealing with the Department of Justice to figure out the issue. “We’ll always be the county that tore military ballots,” she said. Some time after the election, she became the acting county manager, and began trying to reform the election bureau to improve processes.

And on election day in 2022, she was simply a private citizen when the county ran out of paper, and she still became embroiled in the issue. Crocamo said she was at a physical therapy appointment at 7am when she started getting text messages about the shortage. A bureau staffer called her later that morning asking if she knew where extra paper might be, she said.

After the paper shortage and other errors, Crocamo decided to step up because she believes that the key to rebuilding trust with the public is transparency. That’s why she’s pushed to have the ballots posted on the county website early for public review, and to send out regular updates with what election tasks staff are working on.

“I think that there’s a certain portion of the population that wants elections to fail,” Crocamo said during an interview in a conference room in the county building, which she was using to work while a leak was fixed in her office.

Romilda Crocamo, 61, Luzerne county manager, sits for a portrait outside the county elections office in Wilkes-Barre. Photograph: Hannah Yoon/The Guardian

“But my job is to make sure that the public, whether they want the election to fail or they want county government to fail, or whether they want it to work, they need to have all the information that they can possibly have.”

She’s also hired an outside consultant who is meeting regularly with bureau staff and completing a written set of standard operating procedures. “For want of a better term, we need to have a bible,” she said.

And while it isn’t ideal to have turnover in the election director role so close to an election, Crocamo said Cook was well-suited to step into the role.

“We’re fortunate because Emily does have experience and she has experience in various different jobs in the election bureau,” she said. “We had someone that was ready to step in and has the skills to do it.”

Cook, for her part, seems to have made peace with the idea that she can’t explain all of the previous errors made in the bureau.

“I can’t speak to what has been done in the past. I can speak to where we’re at right now,” she said.

Asked why she would want to step up into a role with even more responsibility in the heart of a heated presidential election, Cook took a long pause.

“Do I want to?” she asked. “I am still here and I don’t intend to go anywhere at this point.”

“I don’t want somebody else to have to live through that,” she added. “And as a voter in this county, I don’t want to have to see the county fail.”

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