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Analysis

Poll of Local Election Officials Finds Safety Fears for Colleagues — and Themselves

Officials report threats and a need for more support at the federal and local levels, and it’s causing many to leave their jobs.

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Tom Williams/Contributor

As Amer­ican demo­cracy finds itself under assault from lies about the 2020 pres­id­en­tial race being “stolen,” elec­tion offi­cials are a prime target in the attempt to under­mine future elec­tions. In 2020, in the face of a pandemic, record-high turnout, and a flood of disin­form­a­tion about the elec­tion process and its integ­rity, these offi­cials managed to run “the most secure elec­tion in Amer­ican history.” 

But now, a new Bren­nan Center poll of local elec­tion offi­cials around the coun­try shows how damaging the sustained attacks against them and their colleagues have been, putting apolit­ical elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and our demo­cratic system in seri­ous danger. Here are some key find­ings from the survey.

Elec­tion offi­cials are facing threats, and safety concerns are in part why some have left their jobs.

One in six elec­tion offi­cials have exper­i­enced threats because of their job, and 77 percent say that they feel these threats have increased in recent years. Ranging from death threats that name offi­cials’ young chil­dren to racist and gendered harass­ment, these attacks have forced elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try to take steps like hiring personal secur­ity, flee­ing their homes, and putting their chil­dren into coun­sel­ing.

As elec­tion work­ers attempt to keep our demo­cracy afloat amidst these condi­tions, over half of poll respond­ents repor­ted that they are concerned about the safety of their colleagues. More than one in four are concerned about being assaul­ted on the job.

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Under­stand­ably, some elec­tion work­ers have decided these threats are too high a risk: 30 percent of the offi­cials in our poll know of one or more elec­tion work­ers who have left at least in part because of fear for their safety, increased threats, or intim­id­a­tion. In the long term, 60 percent of offi­cials are concerned that threats, harass­ment, and intim­id­a­tion against local elec­tion offi­cials will make it diffi­cult to retain and recruit elec­tion work­ers. Elec­tion offi­cials and staff have a heavy work­load with a slew of tasks that must be regu­larly under­taken and expert­ise that must be developed — combined with limited staff and resources. Recruit­ing and reten­tion chal­lenges would further burden these offices.

Most elec­tion offi­cials like their jobs, with three in four agree­ing that they find “real enjoy­ment” in their roles. However, 20 percent plan to leave before the 2024 elec­tion, with one-third of those citing polit­ical lead­ers’ attacks on a system they know is fair and honest as one of their top reas­ons for leav­ing. And nearly one-third cite unne­ces­sary stress as one of their top reas­ons for leav­ing.  

Elec­tion offi­cials fear that conspir­acy theor­ies will infect admin­is­tra­tion and are worried about polit­ical inter­fer­ence.

As conspir­acy theor­ies continue to grip a signi­fic­ant portion of the elect­or­ate, over half of elec­tion offi­cials are concerned that some incom­ing elec­tion offi­cials might believe there was wide­spread voter fraud during the 2020 elec­tions.

As elec­tion offi­cials work hard to repeat the successes of the 2020 elec­tion, nearly two-thirds of them repor­ted being worried about polit­ical lead­ers inter­fer­ing in how they do their jobs in future elec­tions. Since the 2020 vote, partisan actors have interfered with apolit­ical elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion as part of the broader elec­tion sabot­age move­ment. For example, states have passed laws that allow partis­ans to seize control of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and crim­in­ally punish elec­tion offi­cials for minor infrac­tions.

Further, nearly one in five local elec­tion offi­cials are concerned about facing pres­sure to certify elec­tion results in favor of a specific candid­ate or party.

Elec­tion offi­cials are partic­u­larly unhappy with support provided by the federal govern­ment.

Nearly 80 percent of elec­tion offi­cials think the federal govern­ment is either doing noth­ing to support them or taking some steps but not doing enough. While Congress has provided cash-strapped state and local elec­tion offices with some support in recent years, that has repres­en­ted a frac­tion of what is needed. Although they feel the most support at the local level, nearly a third of local elec­tion offi­cials still feel that their local govern­ment could be doing more to support them.

The poll also shows that the Justice Depart­ment’s Elec­tion Threats Task Force, which invest­ig­ates and prosec­utes threats against elec­tion offi­cials, has work to do when it comes to reach­ing elec­tion offi­cials and local law enforce­ment. Ninety percent of elec­tion offi­cials never heard of or didn’t know much about the task force. After hear­ing about it, 57 percent were some­what or very confid­ent that it would make them feel safer.

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It’s clear that the Depart­ment of Justice should conduct more outreach to local elec­tion offi­cials. It should also increase coordin­a­tion with local law enforce­ment, who receive the major­ity of threat reports, accord­ing to our poll. Only a frac­tion of local elec­tion offi­cials who have been threatened because of their job repor­ted the threat to law enforce­ment, but 89 percent of those who did repor­ted it to local law enforce­ment.

Social media is seen as a major contrib­utor to prob­lems.

Over three in four local elec­tion offi­cials think that social media compan­ies haven’t done enough to stop the spread of false inform­a­tion, and over one in three of those who exper­i­enced threats have been threatened over social media.

Answer­ing ques­tions from voters who have been misled by inac­cur­ate elec­tion inform­a­tion can be over­whelm­ing and time-consum­ing, strain­ing elec­tion offi­cials and their staff. Social media compan­ies should do more to promote accur­ate inform­a­tion over false inform­a­tion and work directly with elec­tion offi­cials to address press­ing concerns.

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These poll results should raise the alarm for anyone who cares about profes­sional, apolit­ical elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, espe­cially because they’re coming from the people who know it best. All levels of govern­ment must act to protect our elec­tions and the people who run them.