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Congress Must Act to Protect Election Officials

Election officials nationwide are facing unprecedented threats to both their independence and personal safety.

July 28, 2021

The follow­ing is adap­ted from oral testi­mony given Wednes­day before the House Admin­is­tra­tion Commit­tee about efforts to subvert the elec­tion process. The writ­ten testi­mony is here.

This spring, the Bren­nan Center commis­sioned a national survey of elec­tion offi­cials. We found that roughly one in three feel unsafe because of their job, and approx­im­ately one in six listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

In order for demo­cracy to func­tion, we cannot accept this situ­ation. Elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try, regard­less of polit­ical affil­i­ation, risked their lives in a pandemic to help us vote safely in 2020, with the highest turnout since 1900. They are being repaid with viol­ent threats and intim­id­a­tion, polit­ical inter­fer­ence, and disin­form­a­tion campaigns that paint them as cheat­ers instead of the heroes that they are.

There are several prior­it­ies for Congress to consider.

First, viol­ent threats against elec­tion offi­cials and asso­ci­ated elec­tion disin­form­a­tion are ongo­ing prob­lems and they threaten the secur­ity of our elec­tions. Congress should provide support for the protec­tion of elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers.

Second, the Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion Commis­sion and the Cyber­se­cur­ity Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency have worked to help with combat­ing elec­tion disin­form­a­tion and mal-inform­a­tion, or doxing. This includes their work to promote audit­able paper ballot systems. This work should continue, with support from Congress.

Third, Congress should protect elec­tion offi­cials from partisan inter­fer­ence.

In the spring, we partnered with the Bipar­tisan Policy Center and the Ash Center for Demo­cratic Governance and Innov­a­tion at Harvard’s Kennedy School to conduct inter­views and conver­sa­tions with dozens of elec­tion offi­cials and over 30 other experts. The result was a report published last month, and what we learned from these discus­sions was heart­break­ing.

We found that local elec­tion offi­cials feel unsafe because they are being harassed and threatened in the wake of the 2020 elec­tion. Several of them repor­ted that their family members, includ­ing elderly parents and young chil­dren, were harassed using crude language or threatened with viol­ence last year.

Multiple elec­tion offi­cials told us that the persist­ent harass­ment forced them and their famil­ies to flee their homes and seek mental health treat­ment for their chil­dren. And when they reached out to law enforce­ment for help, the response was often insuf­fi­cient to ensure the offi­cial and their family felt safe.

In addi­tion to the appalling harass­ment and threats, many exper­i­enced inter­fer­ence by partisan and polit­ical lead­ers. As pres­id­ent, Trump famously placed a phone call to Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger, in which he pres­sured Raffen­sper­ger to “find 11,780 votes.”

We have found that less sensa­tional forms of this disturb­ing polit­ical inter­fer­ence abound. Many state and local party lead­ers have censured offi­cials who told the truth and refused to under­mine the legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion. A law was passed in Geor­gia that replaces the secret­ary of state as the chair of the State Elec­tion Board with a legis­lat­ive appointee. Other states have intro­duced bills that would crim­in­al­ize acts like send­ing mail ballot applic­a­tions to voters.

Virtu­ally every elec­tion offi­cial we spoke with indic­ated that this beha­vior is partially driven by mis- and disin­form­a­tion about the elec­tion. Lies about the 2020 elec­tion, in partic­u­lar the lie that it was stolen, serve to instig­ate and legit­im­ate attacks on elec­tion offi­cials. One offi­cial compared the attempt to combat online disin­form­a­tion with truth­ful inform­a­tion to scream­ing into a hurricane.

Ongo­ing partisan reviews being conduc­ted or sought in loca­tions like Mari­copa County, Arizona, present an example, happen­ing in real time, of how false claims of elec­tion discrep­an­cies can be ampli­fied by prom­in­ent voices. And the disin­form­a­tion campaigns they fuel continue to harm elec­tion offi­cials. When Arizona Secret­ary of State Katie Hobbs spoke out against the incom­pet­ent review, cred­ible threats against her increased, result­ing in Repub­lican Gov. Doug Ducey provid­ing her with a personal secur­ity detail.

Our report iden­ti­fies a number of solu­tions to these threats to our demo­cracy. These include three ways Congress can help.

First, the Depart­ment of Justice recently announced a task force to address the rise in threats and intim­id­a­tion of elec­tion offi­cials and elec­tion work­ers. Legis­lat­ors should consider fund­ing for safety train­ing, includ­ing how to protect one’s personal inform­a­tion, and phys­ical secur­ity of elec­tion offices.

Second, the under­ly­ing prob­lem of disin­form­a­tion is a task for the whole of soci­ety to tackle, and the private sector will likely need to play a large role. Social media compan­ies could choose to promote truth­ful inform­a­tion from elec­tion offi­cials over atten­tion-grabbing conspir­acy theor­ies. Hear­ings like this that recog­nize the contri­bu­tions of local elec­tion offi­cials also play a role.

Finally, Congress can explore legis­la­tion that protects elec­tion offi­cials from unwar­ran­ted partisan removals.