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.
A 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.