States Want to Boost Protections for Threatened Local Election Officials

Betty Q. Hixson

From her second-floor office window in Medford, Oregon, elections administrator Chris Walker vividly remembers reading the unsettling words painted in big white letters on the parking lot below in late November 2020: “Vote don’t work. Next time bullets.”

Her heart sank, she recalls, wondering whether or when the threat would materialize. Former President Donald Trump had won her southern Oregon community, and despite his lie that the election was stolen, she never expected this anger.

While her office is nonpartisan, Walker, the Jackson County clerk, has been a registered Republican for as long as she’s been able to vote. She’s frustrated to see the amount of election misinformation from members of her party. The pressure from constituents has not let up over the past two years. In emails, she is called a crook and a criminal just for doing her job: running elections.

“It really was shocking,” she said. “We are normal, everyday people. We’ve been charged with an extraordinary task. We have to continue to do our work. We’ve not let it control what we do here.”

Walker is one of many election officials around the country who have faced violent threats and harassment since the 2020 presidential election, as Trump and his allies continue to perpetuate repeatedly disproven myths about voter fraud. This pressure, meant to exhaust and scare local officials into resigning, could usher in new election personnel who seek to skew results, election experts say.

Seeing this crisis unfolding, lawmakers in at least 10, mostly Democratic-run states are considering legislation that would increase criminal penalties for those who threaten election officials. Some measures also would add new digital privacy protections for election officials.

Vanadlism threat

Vandals painted this menacing threat to election officials in Jackson County, Ore., in late November 2020.

Provided by Chris Walker

Last week, for example, Oregon lawmakers gave final approval to a measure that would make threats or harassment of election workers a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, a $6,250 fine or both. The legislation also would allow election workers to keep their home addresses hidden from public records. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign it.

“We are sending a really clear message to people who may seek to interfere in elections that threats and harassment will be met with penalties and, critically, those actions won’t change the outcomes of elections,” said Ben Morris, communications director for Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, who requested the bill.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and with just one dissenting vote in the House. Republican state Rep. Jami Cate told Stateline in an email that she felt torn about the legislation, but ultimately voted against it because of what she felt was hypocrisy by her colleagues for elevating penalties for some crimes and not others.

Harassment of election officials has been a notable problem in the state, officials say. In a January review, the Oregon Election Division found that 10 of 13 frontline election workers who responded to a survey experienced harassment or threats while doing their jobs. That same month, an Oregon county clerk reported a death threat.

Nationwide, election officials are fearful. One-third of election officials said they worried about harassment in a survey published in June from the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning nonprofit at the New York University School of Law. Local election officials across the country have said they are facing a salvo of threats, and many are leaving the field as a result. Around a third of Pennsylvania’s local election officials have left their jobs over the past two years.

Trump-aligned activists and lawmakers have worked to alter the traditional democratic process at many levels of government, from gutting local boards that certify election results to granting state legislatures unprecedented election powers that could ultimately let them change results. Partisan investigations in other states are sowing further doubt in the election system.

In Wisconsin, former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, a conservative leading a widely panned investigation of the 2020 presidential election, last week suggested that the Republican legislature take a “hard look” at decertifying President Joe Biden’s victory.

Stateline Update

Republican Lawmakers Seek New Powers Over Elections

The barrage of lies and misinformation surrounding the voting process has created an environment that fosters violence and harmful attitudes toward local election officials, undermining the health of American democracy, said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser for elections at the Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to improve democratic processes.

“Even when conspiracy theories are debunked, even when the truth is told, even when election officials from both sides of the aisle stand with the results,” she said, “it’s continuing to have traction on the social media platforms and in private chats and around the dinner table that there’s still something questionable about the 2020 election.”

Those lies have led to recent violence, said Natalie Adona, assistant registrar of voters for Nevada County, California.

In January, a small group of unmasked residents supporting a recall effort against members of the Northern California county’s Board of Supervisors brushed past security and charged into the county’s election office, which had a mask mandate in place. As one of the residents attempted to push her way into the election office to demand an update on her submitted recall petitions, the door slammed into a staffer who was blocking the entrance, according to court documents.

The incident shook Adona. When she walks out of her office, she still looks both ways to make sure her path is clear.

“All I could think about was feeling trapped,” she said. “I was shocked. I was really scared. I did not know what was going to happen.”

Last week, a Nevada County judge extended a temporary restraining order against the resident who allegedly injured an election office staff member in the scuffle, barring the person from the office and from owning firearms for three years.

California lawmakers are considering legislation that would keep election workers’ addresses private, building on an existing Safe at Home program that protects domestic violence victims and reproductive health care workers.

“Our election officials are underpaid, understaffed, overworked and now under attack,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that has documented threats against election officials in the state and helped draft the legislation. “We have got to support them.”

She said many of these “vile and heinous” threats are being directed at women, who make up more than 80% of local election officials, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data + Science Lab.

Other measures are gaining momentum across the country. Washington state lawmakers passed a measure last week that would add criminal penalties for online threats made toward election officials. It also would make election workers and their families eligible for shielding their home addresses from the public.

Stateline Story

Disinformation May Be the New Normal, Election Officials Fear

In Maine, Democratic state Rep. Bruce White told Stateline he was inspired by years of volunteering for his hometown’s elections when he recently introduced legislation that would make interfering with an election official a misdemeanor crime. It was approved unanimously by a committee last month. White expects a full House vote before the end of March. Protecting election workers, he said, ensures everyone can cast a ballot.

Lawmakers in Colorado last month introduced legislation that would prevent people from posting personal information or photos of election officials that threatens the safety of that official. The bill has not yet received a committee hearing. Last year, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed a law that makes it a felony to threaten an election official or their family.

Other states have turned to law enforcement for election workers’ security. In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—who in 2020 resisted Trump’s overtures to change the state’s vote totals—last month said he wanted to mobilize state troopers to provide security at the state’s 2,000 polling places for the primary and midterm elections this year. In Washoe County, Nevada, which encompasses Reno, the county commission wants to use the National Guard at polling places.

But these proposals have faced some resistance from local voting rights organizations that worry about a potentially chilling effect on voters. While a police presence has been common practice in states such as New York for years, the addition of law enforcement in other communities might be unwelcome, said Patrick, at the Democracy Fund.

“We certainly don’t want to become a nation where our polling places are armed fortresses, and we have to consider whether or not we’re going to the polls and vote and subject ourselves to loss of life and limb because of violence potentially erupting,” she said.

If states and localities want a law enforcement presence, officers or troops could be assigned behind-the-scenes work, she said—they would be present if a violent situation arose but would be out of view of voters who might feel intimidated.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year launched a law enforcement task force to investigate and prosecute threats against election workers. In its first arrest in January, the feds charged a Texas man with threatening Georgia election officials. The task force has documented more than 850 reports of threats to election officials.

The Justice Department also has told states they could use federal public safety grant dollars to boost protections for election workers.

But further state and federal protections are needed, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. His organization houses the Election Official Legal Defense Network, which offers pro-bono legal help to election workers.

“If someone is intending to commit domestic terrorism by threatening election officials in an effort to alter them from the course of their duty,” he said, “or to get them to leave their office to be replaced by someone who will shun their duty, that should be criminally prosecuted, and there should be a severe penalty.”

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