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The Great Resignation . . . Of Election Officials

The people who run our elections are exhausted and afraid.

April 25, 2023
Graphic of gloved hand handling ballots
BC/JASON REDMOND/spxChrome/Getty

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Our elections are secure, but our election officials are not.

Today, the Brennan Center released a new poll of local election officials. Twelve percent, roughly one in nine, are new in the job since the 2020 election, and eleven percent of officials in office are likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 election.

Part of the Great Resignation? Not exactly. Election officials don’t seem to be seeking out remote work opportunities or fleeing to the exurbs. They’re more worried about their safety and the safety of their families. According to the poll results, nearly one in three officials has been harassed, abused, or threatened. One in five is worried about being physically assaulted on the job. And 45 percent expressed concern for the safety of other election officials and workers. None of them signed up for this.

Here, perhaps more than in any other area of governance, we see two diseases of American politics converging: disinformation and guns.

Republicans have long made baseless claims of voter fraud. Republican-controlled legislatures have worked to close polls earlier, reduce the number of polling locations, purge voter rolls, and erect obstacles to individual voters — all part of an effort to shade the vote in their favor, executed under the pretext of election security. Those little lies have been a feature of the political landscape for decades.

Donald Trump unleashed something new, and far scarier. The Big Lie wasn’t a hypothetical about the possibility of voter fraud — it was a verifiably false allegation that an election was deliberately stolen. Unlike Republicans’ previous vague warnings about potential voter fraud, the Big Lie named names. It cast election officials as masterminds in a made-up crime against the state.

Trump’s lie was always paired with the threat of violence. “Fight like hell,” he told his followers minutes before sending them to the Capitol on January 6. It was far from the first time that Trump had raised the possibility of political violence. Of Hillary Clinton, he once casually remarked, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

It should surprise no one, including Trump himself, that some of his supporters have taken his election lies as an explicit call to violence against the people who administer our elections.

The wave of threats won’t magically disappear. What Trump set loose, many subsidiary politicians have rushed in to exploit. The Marjorie Taylor Greenes of American politics will stick around as long as there is a political fringe to support them. The lies have trickled down, too, with previously “establishment-friendly” lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham becoming more aggressive and apocalyptic in their lies about voter fraud.

While the lies and threats are here for the immediate future, there is something we can do to protect our elections and the people who make them happen. We can take their security seriously.

Three-quarters of local election officials say they need more money to address security and election administration needs over the next five years. Some have requested bullet-resistant glass and transaction windows. And they need money to replace outdated voting machines and other polling place equipment, as well as to upgrade cybersecurity. Congress has provided only a fraction of the money required to secure our elections and election officials.

I talked to Natalie Tennant, who administered West Virginia’s elections as secretary of state for eight years and now serves as the Brennan Center’s manager of state advocacy in the Democracy Program. “Something has got to give,” she said. “The pressure on election officials must be relieved if we are realistically going to be ready for 2024. We now know what some of the solutions are and it’s time to implement them, whether it’s more funding, tighter security measures, or laws that protect workers. We can’t support our democracy on a hope and a prayer.”