2024 Election Workers Need Better Protection from Harassment

October 18, 2023 | 11:37 am
election workers with votersEdmond Dantes/Pexels.com
Derrick Z. Jackson

Most election workers are probably like my late mother-in-law. Mary Holmes spent many of her senior years volunteering at the polls in Cambridge, MA. She considered this work a part of her civic duty, just as she had decades earlier when she volunteered as a school traffic guard.  

She never voiced a moment of fear, either from motorists who respected her waving of arms and her reflective vest, or from voters, many of whom hurriedly hustled in and out of the ballot box on their way to work or on the way home from work to dinner. I cannot recall anything specific she ever said about this work. It was just what you did in a community. Her many years of service spoke for themselves about her pride in playing a seemingly small role in democracy.

We’ve learned more in recent years about how large a role she actually played. The mobs of January 6, 2021 and the malevolent harassment of election workers and officials all over the nation by deniers of the 2020 defeat of former President Donald Trump have left this slice of democracy on an unprecedented precipice. According to a report released last month by Issue One, a nonpartisan democracy think tank, roughly 40 percent of chief local elections officials in 11 western states have left their posts since the 2020 election.

Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, states won by Biden, experienced election worker turnover of more than 50 percent. So did Utah, a state Trump won by an overwhelming margin. Turnover in both California, a very blue Democratic state, and Idaho, a flaming red Republican state, exceeded 40 percent.

This is, at least in part, fallout from the vilification of election officials and poll workers by Trump and his camp in the immediate wake of losing states he had won in 2016, especially Georgia. Top victims of the Georgia attacks included Black women like my mother-in-law, most notably Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss. They were the two Fulton County election workers falsely accused of ballot tampering by Trump and ally Rudy Giuliani. This summer, Giuliani admitted making false statements against the two women and a federal judge found him liable for defamation.

But that verdict can’t erase how those lies temporarily ruined the lives of Moss and Freeman. They went into hiding under a barrage of racist death threats and the invasion of Moss’s grandmother’s house by Trump supporters. One social media threat clearly hinted at lynching with: “be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.” In congressional testimony last year, Moss said, “I just felt bad for my mom, and I felt horrible for picking this job and being the one that always wants to help and [who was] always there, never missing not one election.”

That symbolizes the seismic trauma suffered by election workers across this nation in the last three years, regardless of race, gender, political party, or the political leanings of their country or state.

Election worker exodus

The Issue One report did not give a direct comparison to turnover in years past for the 11 states it covered, but a Boston Globe analysis last year found that the turnover of top elections officials had only been 3.4 percent in Utah and 23.3 percent in Arizona after the 2016-18 election cycle. The Globe also found a dramatic rise in turnover rates between the 2016-18 election cycle and the 2020-22 election cycle in the battleground state of Pennsylvania and in solidly Republican South Carolina.

Issue One also calculated that, in the 11 western states alone, more than 1,800 years of combined experience was lost in the exodus of elections officials. The report called it a huge loss in an era “where officials work with specialized voting machines, oversee ballot tabulation, and combat cybersecurity threats,” and where even a single mistake, “however innocuous, may be interpreted by hyper-partisans as malicious acts.”

Josh Daniels, the former clerk of Utah County, Utah, recently told National Public Radio that he did not run for reelection in 2022 because his job had become an “exhausting” combination of The Twilight Zone and Groundhog Day. Even though Trump routed Biden in that county by 68 percent to 27 percent, Daniels felt stuck in a surreal time loop of attacks on his integrity.

“Every day you wake up and it’s the same thing over and over again,” Daniels said. “It doesn’t matter how much information and data you share; it doesn’t matter how many concerns you answer. There will just be a new group of critics to again dish out the new conspiracy of the day.”  

It is highly unclear whether the new group of election officials who are taking the place of people like Daniels will be any better protected when hyper-partisan critics dish out new conspiracies. This summer, the Justice Department announced two more guilty pleas and two more convictions of men who issued death threats to elections officials in Arizona and Georgia.

But that totals only nine convictions over the last two years, out of more than 2,000 reports of harassment and threats. The Justice Department says most reports, however abusive, do not cross the line separating free speech from threats of “unlawful violence.”

The situation deeply concerns Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold for the 2024 elections. One of the federal convictions was against a man who threatened her. “I anticipate it will get worse as we end this year and go into the presidential election next year,” Griswold told the Associated Press. “Do we have the best tools to get through the next period of time? Absolutely not.”

In a recent interview with Salon, Griswold added that new tools are needed in the face of “a coordinated national effort to undermine American elections,” by hardline supporters of Trump.

“Everything that we have done for my security, we have had to fight tooth and nail for,” she said. “State and federal governments have largely abandoned election workers.”   

Who will have election officials’ backs?

The Brennan Center for Justice, one of the top think tanks watchdogging the threats to elections workers, has suggested the need for much stronger coordination between federal and local law enforcement to be aware of threats. It says more federal funding is needed to bolster security at local and state election sites and offices. The center also calls on states to protect the private information of elections officials and for Internet companies to develop more stringent screening for severe cases of disinformation and corrective information about posts that are clearly false.

“Although the United States avoided widespread violence in 2022, the 2024 election will bring more division and heightened tensions,” the Brennan Center said. It also warned that artificial intelligence “could result in a rise of deepfakes—manipulated images, video, and audio used to misrepresent election officials and exacerbate threats against them. Now is the time to take action to protect election workers—and, ultimately, the electoral process.”

There has been positive movement in that arena. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states have enacted laws in 2022 and 2023 intended to better protect poll workers and elections officials. Most of the new laws make it crime to threaten these workers and offer them more confidentiality. While most of these 11 states fall on the more liberal side of the political spectrum, very conservative Oklahoma has now also enacted penalties of up to $1,000 for someone who harasses or threatens an election official with the intent of influencing the results.

In addition, the National Conference of State Legislatures recommends higher pay for poll workers. The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists says that increased public access to voting data can help to proactively neuter disinformation and conspiracy theories about voting results. It recommends more support for local officials to process and organize data quickly and accurately to help boost real-time confidence in election results.

Any discussion of data and democracy also depends on making sure science and scientists are being protected, just like poll workers. With the politization around issues and events such as Covid19, climate change, and environmental protection, local and state scientists are also having their integrity attacked, and their data altered, censored, or disregarded as never before. In a 2022 survey of 45,000 health care workers in state and local government public health departments, some 41 percent said they were bullied, threatened, or harassed for their guidance and decisions during the pandemic on measures such as masking, social distancing and vaccination campaigns. Nearly a third of state health workers said they were considering leaving their organization in the next year.

In a report co-authored last month by the Brennan Center and UCS, the two groups urged state legislatures to require their agencies to: rely on the best available science, bolster ethical standards for science advisory committees, strengthen conflict-of-interest policies, take into consideration equity for underserved communities in decisionmaking, and adopt stronger state and federal protections for scientists and whistleblowers against politically motivated attacks.

Fighting back

Now is the time to act, before fear and demoralization among election workers and state scientists alike triggers an irreparable wave of resignations that leaves few, if any, to take their place. A Brennan Center survey this year found that nearly a third of local elections officials say they have experienced harassment, abuse or threats. Nearly half of these threats go unreported, and only 27 percent of officials believe that the federal government is doing a good job to support them.

In a blog last year, I cited the frustration of Scott Konopasek, former director of elections for Fairfax County, Virginia. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee how personal threats were not taken seriously by local law enforcement and how federal law enforcement referred him back to local law enforcement.

“The lack of concern and follow up made me feel foolish and silly and less willing to share further threats,” said Konopasek, who added that threats, harassment and intimidation of election officials should be a federal offense under the immediate jurisdiction of the FBI. As he rightly noted, threats and threatening behavior “do not have to involve violence or bodily harm before they have an effect on an individual, a staff, and the effective conduct of elections.”

Most all of the available data suggests that the 2024 elections will represent a crossroads for our democracy. According to the Brennan Center, since 2020, 28 states have passed 65 laws that make it harder to vote. The current frontrunner for the Republican nomination is the very former president who made poll workers a bullseye for his supporters with his lies. In Lyon County, Nevada, which is 88.5 percent White, and where Trump beat Biden 69 percent to 28 percent, Nikki Bryan, a lifelong Republican, called it quits last year after more than two decades as clerk and treasurer. She told the Christian Science Monitor: “I love this county and I want to see elections done right. But I can’t fix the anger. I’ve tried.” 

For now, there remains a legion of election workers dedicated to their duty and thousands of Americans who have responded to the attacks on the election process by signing up to work the polls themselves. The nonpartisan Power the Polls says it recruited 275,000 potential poll workers for the 2022 midterms. In a post-election survey of 4,700 of them, 61 percent said they indeed showed up to serve.

More recently, elections officials were buoyed by this summer’s indictment in Georgia of Trump, Giuliani and 17 other allies for allegedly trying to overturn Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in that state, out of nearly five million votes cast for the two candidates.

Olivia Coley-Pearson, a city commissioner in half-Black Douglas, Georgia who was once falsely accused and acquitted of illegally assisting voters, told the Washington Post: “Black women have been the backbone for years of a lot of stuff: Of our families, of our churches. It’s kind of in our nature to do what it takes to make things happen, to stand up for what’s right. This is about survival. And we realize that. If we don’t do what we must do, our children won’t have a future.”

Like Coley-Pearson, my late mother-in-law worked at the polls because it was in her nature to do what it takes to make things happen and to stand up for what’s right. I cannot say what Mary Holmes would have done if she had faced the kinds of threats election workers often do today. But I’m pretty sure she’d say that unless we protect those workers, we’ll leave a future for our children we don’t want to contemplate.