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Election Officials Are in Jeopardy — Here’s How We Help

There are real and tangible solutions to help protect election officials and help ensure a free and fair electoral process.

August 27, 2021

This piece was origin­ally published in The Hill.

Elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try in 2020 admin­istered what govern­ment offi­cials and elec­tion experts described as the “most secure” elec­tion in Amer­ican history under extraordin­ar­ily trying circum­stances.

Amid a pandemic, they risked their own health to ensure that Amer­ic­ans could cast a ballot. But instead of being celeb­rated for those efforts, elec­tion offi­cials have been maligned by people who believe the Big Lie that the 2020 elec­tion was stolen. It’s gotten so bad that some are now leav­ing their posts, or have considered doing so, open­ing the door for more polit­ical actors to take over the admin­is­tra­tion of our elec­tions. But local, state and federal govern­ments can act now to protect our demo­cracy.  

recent report published by the Bren­nan Center, where I work, and the Bipar­tisan Policy Center found that viol­ent threats against elec­tion work­ers reached an alarm­ing level in 2020, and have contin­ued into 2021. One in three elec­tion offi­cials reports feel­ing unsafe because of their job. 

For example, in Michigan, armed indi­vidu­als went to Secret­ary of State Jocelyn Benson’s home, where she was putting up Christ­mas decor­a­tions with her 4-year-old son. Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger and his family moved to an undis­closed loca­tion when a family member’s home was broken into. And in Phil­adelphia, two armed men with ties to the conspir­acy group QAnon were arres­ted outside the Pennsylvania Conven­tion Center, where votes were being coun­ted. 

Elec­tion offi­cials indic­ate that disin­form­a­tion is contrib­ut­ing to the prob­lem. Seventy-eight percent said disin­form­a­tion about elec­tions on social media has made their jobs harder, and 54 percent said it has made their jobs more danger­ous.

This new climate of harass­ment could pose yet another threat to demo­cracy: elec­tion offi­cials leav­ing their posi­tions and taking with them insti­tu­tional know­ledge, expert­ise and a commit­ment to nonpar­tisan elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. But, there are ways to help protect elec­tion offi­cials and their famil­ies, and help ensure the contin­ued profes­sional admin­is­tra­tion of our elec­tions.

The Depart­ment of Justice (DOJ) has put together a task force to address threats against elec­tion offi­cials, and that’s a start, though the task force itself will have more power if it collab­or­ates closely with local law enforce­ment and prosec­utors, who are ulti­mately most respons­ible for ensur­ing safety on the ground. Other federal agen­cies have a role too. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity’s Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency (CISA), for example, could work in conjunc­tion with others like the National Asso­ci­ation of Secret­ar­ies of State and the U.S. Vote Found­a­tion to facil­it­ate the creation of a direct­ory of the more than 8,000 elec­tion offi­cials around the coun­try. Inter­net compan­ies could then use that resource to amplify the trus­ted voices of the indi­vidu­als in the direct­ory, help­ing combat elec­tion-related false­hoods that can spread online.

And at the state and local levels, lawmakers should provide fund­ing to help bolster secur­ity for elec­tion offi­cials. This could include money for train­ing on how to improve personal secur­ity or grant funds that help elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers purchase home secur­ity systems. Lawmakers can also pass legis­la­tion that better protects these indi­vidu­als’ personal inform­a­tion. And, states should ensure that elec­tion offi­cials have adequate legal repres­ent­a­tion to defend against polit­ic­ally motiv­ated lawsuits and invest­ig­a­tions.

Congress can be an import­ant part of the solu­tion too by estab­lish­ing a baseline, national stand­ards for voting rights and elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. The clar­ity that this would provide could help reduce some of the complex­ity and confu­sion that can breed elec­tion-related disin­form­a­tion. This in turn could help keep elec­tion offi­cials safe and remove some oppor­tun­it­ies for partisan actors who are using the current confu­sion to attempt to politi­cize the process of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.

Our demo­cracy is at stake. Free and fair elec­tions rely on work­ers who are enabled to safely ensure nonpar­tisan admin­is­tra­tion. We outlined real and tangible solu­tions to help protect offi­cials and help ensure a free and fair elect­oral process. Now is the time to put them in place.