The courtroom was packed when the North Carolina State Board of Elections convened on Tuesday to consider removing two members of the Surry County Board of Elections from their posts. At the Surry County GOP convention not long before, one board member, Tim DeHaan, had appealed for people to attend the meeting at the county courthouse. And now, dozens of supporters, one with “We the People” tattooed on his forearm and another with cowboy boots stamped with American flags, whispered tensely among themselves.

DeHaan and Jerry Forestieri were facing the state elections board because, at a November meeting to certify the county’s 2022 general election results, they had presented a co-signed letter declaring “I don’t view election law per NCSBE as legitimate or Constitutional.” Then Forestieri refused to certify the election, while DeHaan only agreed to certify it on a technicality.

This month, both Forestieri and DeHaan refused to certify a redo of a November 2022 municipal election. The new contest had been called after a poll worker allegedly made a mistake in telling voters that one of the four candidates had died, which could have swung a race decided by eight votes. (The results of the second race were the same as the first.)

Both elections were ultimately certified by the board’s three Democrats. But DeHaan’s and Forestieri’s refusals to certify, along with similar actions by conservative county election officials in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, exposed a weakness in the nation’s electoral system. If local officials failed to certify, the disruption could cascade and cast into dispute state and federal election outcomes, potentially allowing partisan actors to inappropriately influence them, according to election law experts. A ProPublica review of 10 such cases found that most officials have not faced formal consequences for their refusal to certify. DeHaan’s and Forestieri’s hearing was to be the first completed disciplinary process for such officials nationwide after the 2022 election.

At the trial-like state elections board meeting, Bob Hall, the former executive director of the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina whose complaint had launched the disciplinary process, argued that DeHaan and Forestieri could not be trusted to supervise elections because of their refusal to follow the law. Forestieri and DeHaan told the board that they could not be certain of the identities of voters or the validity of their ballots because they disagreed with a federal judge striking down a voter ID law for discriminating against minorities. Forestieri defended their actions as a “free speech issue.”

The lone Republican board member present, Stacy Eggers, made two motions to remove the men from office, and each motion passed unanimously, 4-0. “We cannot substitute our own opinions,” Eggers said, for “what the law actually is.”

As the motions passed, one woman exclaimed in the quiet courtroom: “The law is perverted! The law is perverted!”

Afterward, in the hall outside the courtroom, DeHaan and Forestieri were sought out by local supporters and election deniers who’d traveled to the hearing from outside the county. Talk swirled of appealing the decision in court, though Forestieri said a final decision about an appeal would be made at a later date.

“We took a stand for lawful, credible elections appropriate for the owners of this republic, we the people,” said Forestieri at the courthouse. “I cannot apologize for that.” Forestieri later wrote to ProPublica that he disagreed with his removal from office, and that the “NCSBE proved itself unwilling to recognize clear law in General Statutes” by striking down his and DeHaan’s arguments.

DeHaan declined to comment and did not respond to written questions.

Michella Huff, the elections director for Surry County, had watched the proceedings stoically. It was a year to the day since Huff had blocked the chairman of the county Republican Party from illegally accessing her voting machines to further a conspiracy theory, after which he launched a pressure campaign that included attempts to reduce her pay and raucous protests featuring nationally prominent election deniers, as ProPublica has previously reported. (The county chairman told ProPublica that he did not seek to cut her pay, though text messages and emails obtained via public records requests showed otherwise.)

Huff helps election workers on a day when all voting machines are tested to ensure each is functioning properly. Credit: Cornell Watson for ProPublica

As a result of the year’s travails, Angie Harrison, Huff’s deputy director, has said she will retire in June. “Here in Surry County and across the entire nation, people want to put more scrutiny on the election process, which is a good thing to help voters understand the law — our philosophy is to educate,” she said. But “we take it personally when people start attacking the job that we have been so proud to deliver accurately and without bias.”

In early 2022, a national survey from the Brennan Center for Justice found that a fifth of local elections officials reported they were unlikely to stay in their jobs for the 2024 election. “We’re in the middle of an exodus of election workers,” said Larry Norden, the senior director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program. An Arizona election official, whose county supervisors refused to certify November 2022 results until ordered to do so by a court, also recently left to “protect her health and safety” after working conditions became “intolerable,” as her lawyer wrote in a letter to the county.

Huff, however, is staying in her post. Last fall, after the state’s attorney general, Josh Stein, read ProPublica’s story about Huff, his office gave her an award for her “incredible commitment to democracy” as “she refused to buckle to those who lie about stolen elections,” Stein wrote in a statement. A year ago, she had felt overwhelmed by the new and unprecedented challenges inundating election officials, but now she felt more capable to confront them. “Not saying that it’s going to be easy” in 2024, she said, “but I’m a little more prepared now for the what-ifs.”

The election deniers departed the courthouse boisterously, talking about going out for lunch. Huff got in a van with another election worker and was driven past cornfields to her office. The November 2022 election was finally done, four and a half months late, and now it was time to get ready for the next one.