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In the wake of 2020, election officials are beleaguered

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is a hard time to be an election worker. In Michigan, election workers in 2020 counted ballots while a mob fueled by lies pounded on the glass. In Georgia, a Republican election official warned that lies would lead to violence. And the pressure has continued in 2021.

Ashley Lopez of KUT begins this story with an election worker in Texas.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: In Texas, elections are run almost entirely by county officials - people like Isabel Longoria in Harris County, which is where Houston is. Longoria says she loves this job. And she thinks most people who do this kind of work feel the same way.

ISABEL LONGORIA: I don't know a single other elections administrator who's not an election nerd. We get to run the founding principles of this country, which is free and fair elections.

LOPEZ: Longoria started this gig last year, the worst of the pandemic and ahead of the presidential election. She came up with a lot of ideas on how to make voting safer - ideas that were later criticized and prohibited by Republican state lawmakers. After that election and the false allegations that it was stolen, Longoria has been doing what she can to help people understand what she does. But she's finding that some people cannot be satisfied.

LONGORIA: That is what's concerning to me, is not that people hold us accountable, not that people have questions about how elections are happening, but that they are now trained to say that if there's an answer that is acceptable, that is true, it must be a lie.

LOPEZ: In some cases, this distrust has led to harassment of local election officials in Texas. In heavily Republican Hood County, outside of Fort Worth, the pressure led to the resignation of the lead election official there.

Virginia Kase Solomon with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters says this is a nationwide problem.

VIRGINIA KASE SOLOMON: What we've seen is increasing threats of violence and aggression. It's really, really sad. These are some of the most patriotic roles anybody can play. And they have now been politicized. And it's just really, really sad for our country.

LOPEZ: Election experts say they're seeing a rise in the number of beleaguered officials retiring early. That hasn't so much been the case in Texas. Here, another trend is happening. Counties have been moving away from elected positions and instead creating more specialized appointed roles for this kind of work.

Remi Garza with the Texas Association of Election Administrators says there's a lot of different reasons for this. But a main reason is that running elections is getting more complicated.

REMI GARZA: And there are additional repercussions for when things go wrong, that people are going to want to turn to those individuals that specialize in this type of government function.

LOPEZ: Out of the 254 counties in Texas, Garza says, at last count, half have switched to election administrator positions. He says he's seeing that number continue to grow. This means fewer voters in Texas will be directly electing the people who run their elections.

Anthony Gutierrez with Common Cause Texas says whether this is a good thing kind of depends.

ANTHONY GUTIERREZ: You know, it really can go both ways. I mean, you see some election administrators who do a really good job because they're professionals who stay in that job for decades in some cases.

LOPEZ: But, Gutierrez says, sometimes appointments can be pretty political. For example, he says, Governor Greg Abbott recently appointed a new elections chief for the state who was part of President Trump's legal team trying to overturn 2020 election results in Pennsylvania. Gutierrez says, in those situations, voters can't weigh in at the ballot box to vote someone out. He says this is why he thinks for this model to work, there needs to be transparency.

GUTIERREZ: With this type of an appointment system, you really need to have citizens involved. You need to have a public, transparent interview process, where you have multiple candidates that people can interact with.

LOPEZ: This appointment system actually creates more accountability, says Isabel Longoria, the elections administrator in Harris County. She says that's because there's only one person voters look to for answers.

LONGORIA: It's one job you hold me accountable for, from soup to nuts. I am the person who has to make that happen. And therefore, voters have much more clarity on holding me accountable.

LOPEZ: In Cameron County, on the state's southern border, Remi Garza says he thinks as the pressure mounts, election administrators like him are in a good position to take things in stride.

GARZA: There's always going to be some level of changes that - are going to address. But we're not easily scared off to performing these types of tasks. I think, you know, elections administrators are made of pretty stern stuff.

LOPEZ: Garza says the hardest part of the job will always be the nuts and bolts of getting polling sites up and running and election results released. But experts worry getting those results released could be harder if the public continues to place such a strain on election workers.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.