Two years after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the images and feelings from the day are still vivid for many Americans. The actions taken after the 2020 election continue to have real impacts on communities and elections across North Carolina.
"I really couldn't believe it," said Wake County Board of Elections director Gary Sims reflecting on January 6, 2021. "I've been working in elections now for 24 years. I've never seen anything like that."
The disbelief from the day two years ago has now transformed into increased threats and risks for him and his colleagues.
"What we're seeing right now is our groups are more organized and structured and now we're seeing groups link in with other groups and their motivations. So it's almost like they've had two years now of just planning and staging," he said.
Sims said different national groups have staged protests in front of the election office, sent dozens of public records requests, interrupted board meetings, and stalked and harassed election officials.
"I guess this is the new life of an elections person where you have to say it's normal now for somebody to come to try to beat down your door at your house or just showing up or sitting outside your house and so forth," he said.
Sims said these actions have caused the Wake County Board of Elections to increase security year-round.
Beyond election workers, the groups spreading disinformation and misinformation have also impacted voters and poll workers.
There were 21 incidents of interference and intimidation at the polls at the North Carolina polls in November. These incidents ranged from a person following an election worker in their car to photographing workers to threatening an election official.
Two incidents took place in Wake County that included an election worker followed in a car from the voting site and someone aggressively pushing materials on voters entering the site making them feel very uncomfortable, according to reports to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Sims said in addition to those reports, county officials also had to call the police around nine times during the Midterm Elections, an amount much higher than any election in the past.
North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene said the long-term consequence of the insurrection could have even more dire consequences.
"The long-term consequence is that people have less confidence in elections," Greene said. "Elections are not the only thing that makes a democracy, but free and fair elections that are legitimate and that the people believe in are fundamental to democracy. So when that's weakened as it has been, that weakens democracy."
Surveys show that confidence in elections has decreased. The Pew Research Center reported this fall that 31% fewer Republicans expected the presidential election to be run well in 2022 compared to 2018. Meanwhile, 9% more Democrats believed the election in 2022 would be run well compared to 2018.
Additionally, the share of Republican voters who are confident their in-person vote will be counted accurately dropped to only 79% in 2022 compared to 92% in 2020.
"What's frustrating about it is free and fair and legitimate elections are at the heart of this and any democracy and the basic principles of democracy, of all the things, should be a nonpartisan issue," Greene said. "To see things like basic features of democracy being a partisan issue is a big concern."
Greene said the outcomes of the recent midterm election do give him some hope in restrengthening the strength of democracy in the nation. Many of the candidates running as election deniers were defeated in their races. He said continuing to squash voters' distrust depends on who runs as the presidential candidate in 2024 and on the actions of public leaders.
"Public opinion starts at the top and filters down. Ordinary citizens really are taking cues or taking their signals from politicians and representatives, other political elites, and we need politicians and you know, TV personalities to stop calling into question the integrity of elections. That's what needs to happen," Greene said.
Sims said they are already preparing for a similar political environment in 2024 and trying to stay ahead of any threats or risks.
"What we're doing is the best we can do is to remain transparent in everything we're doing," he said. "Making sure we're following election laws, testing our equipment, working in a bipartisan fashion, and that's what we do."