CLEVELAND, OHIO — “The Board of Elections really needs to do their background on these people,” said Tonya Gallardo, hours after she was threatened with a gun by a fellow poll worker on Tuesday.
Gallardo, the presiding election judge at the Louisa May Alcott Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio, said she had about 50 voters casting ballots when poll worker Alan Bethea threatened to kill her, and showed at least one firearm to another poll worker. Bethea was eventually arrested for, among other things, having a weapon under disability.
The charge likely means Bethea had some sort of criminal record that prevented him from owning a gun. Ohio weapons under disability law forbid people from owning guns if they’ve been convicted of a violent crime; if they have been indicted; if they’re a chronic drug user or alcoholic; or if a judge has deemed them mentally ill.
Whatever the case, Gallardo wonders why Bethea was allowed to become a poll worker — at an elementary school, no less — if he fell into one of those categories.
“They need to get responsible people, especially when you’re in churches and schools and kids are involved,” she said, noting that kids were in the polling place when the incident occurred. “What if he would have opened fire with that gun, and hit one of those babies? Do you know how that would have devastated us? My mind would have never been right.”
There are currently no requirements for background checks on poll workers, in Ohio or in any other state. The idea was once floated in Madison, Wisconsin — the Madison School District wanted the city to do criminal background checks on poll workers in school buildings — but that didn’t seem to have gone anywhere.
Here’s how Gallardo tells the story of what happened on Tuesday. At around noon, Bethea got into an argument with Gallardo and other poll workers over his handling of a disabled voter.
The disabled voter was looking to cast a ballot in the presidential primary election. Bethea told the voter to go to a green table — but there was no green table to be found. At that point, a female poll worker told Bethea to get up and help the voter. Instead of helping, however, Bethea began to yell at the female poll worker.
That’s when Gallardo jumped in. “Me being the precinct judge, I got up and said, there’s like 50 people in here voting, I can’t have this,” she said. “I said excuse me, you have to calm down.”
“He goes, ‘You need to shut the fuck up, bitch,'” Gallardo recalled. “He says, ‘Bitch, who the hell are you think you are?'”
Gallardo said she went back across the room, called the Board of Elections, and asked to have Bethea removed. In response, Bethea opened his backpack, and showed his gun to the female poll worker sitting next to him. He showed her the gun in the bag, and pointed his finger at Gallardo.
“I could hear him from all the way over here. He said, ‘She’s gonna die tonight. She’s gonna die,'” Gallardo said. “He went and opened his bag, and showed the girl next to him — ‘Look what I’ve got for her.'”
Gallardo called the cops. Before they got there, Bethea left — but the police eventually tracked him down and arrested him. In a statement, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections confirmed they had terminated Bethea.
Still, Gallardo said this wasn’t the first time she has interacted with an unstable poll worker. A few years ago, she said, a poll worker at a local church pulled out a long knife and began threatening people. “It was in the newspaper,” she said. “They took him to jail that day.”
Now, Gallardo said she was lucky no one got hurt the first two times — and doesn’t want to take a chance with a third. She’s been working every election since she was 18 years old, she said, but now her kids are asking her to stop. If the Board of Elections doesn’t change something, she said, she just might.
“Why in the world would they let him come in to a school with children and work the election?” she said. “They really can not just hire anyone because they need people to work.”