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Policy Solution

Election Officials Under Attack

Summary: Scapegoated for election outcomes that some politicians and voters did not like, election officials have been under unprecedented attack. Here’s a plan to protect them.

Published: June 16, 2021

Al Schmidt, the Repub­lican city commis­sioner of Phil­adelphia, might seem an unlikely light­ning rod for the 2020 elec­tion. The married father of three, described by local media as a “bespec­tacled” bureau­crat, is one of three commis­sion­ers respons­ible for over­see­ing elec­tion-related affairs for the city. foot­note1_msi63hn 1 Max Marin, “How ‘GOP Rebel’ Al Schmidt Became the Voice of the 2020 Philly Elec­tion — and Trump’s Nemesis,” Billy Penn, Decem­ber 1, 2020, https://billy­­adelphia-elec­tion-zero-fraud-repub­lican-commis­sioner. A decades-long Repub­lican, he prided himself on bring­ing trans­par­ency to Phil­adelphi­a’s elec­tion processes. foot­note2_0tzp­f9w 2 Marin, “‘GOP Rebel’ Al Schmidt.”

Threats against Schmidt and his board of elec­tions colleagues began before Elec­tion Day, Novem­ber 3, 2020. About a week prior, someone left an omin­ous phone message stat­ing that the board members were “the reason why we have the Second Amend­ment.” foot­note3_m8s9ur3 3 Al Schmidt (city commis­sioner, Phil­adelphia, PA), “Elec­tion Offi­cials Are Under Attack,” Bren­nan Center for Justice (here­after Bren­nan Center), June 16, 2021. Shortly after that, police arres­ted two men in Phil­adelphia “after receiv­ing an FBI tip that they were making threats against the Pennsylvania Conven­tion Center,” where ballots were being coun­ted. The men were armed with “two loaded semi-auto­matic Beretta pistols, one semi-auto­matic AR-15-style rifle, and ammuni­tion” at the time of the arrest. foot­note4_yzdfz5i 4 Miguel Martinez-Valle, “Two Arres­ted with Guns After Police Get Tip of Conven­tion Center Threat,” NBC 10 Phil­adelphia, Novem­ber 6, 2020, https://www.nbcphil­­ted-after-police-get-tip-of-conven­tion-center-threat/2587411. These two men were released and subsequently atten­ded the Janu­ary 6 Capitol rally. “2 Men Arres­ted Near Phil­adelphia Conven­tion Center Sent Back to Jail After Capitol Rally Attend­ance,” Fox 29 Phil­adelphia, Janu­ary 26, 2021,­ance-1.

In the days after Pennsylvania was called for Joe Biden, Schmidt appeared in the media to defend the integ­rity of the elec­tion. Pres­id­ent Donald Trump and his campaign called out Schmidt and members of his staff. Stalk­ers tracked down the cell phone numbers of Schmidt and a staff member, who is Jewish, which “ignited . . . [a] wave of menacing and often anti-Semitic attacks.” foot­note5_qbt3d7e 5 Marin, “‘GOP Rebel’ Al Schmidt.”

Schmidt and his family received death threats. One text message, which mentioned his wife and chil­dren, read, “You lied. You a traitor. Perhaps 75cuts and 20bul­lets will soon arrive.” foot­note6_6br7g1z 6 James Verini, “He Wanted to Count Every Vote in Phil­adelphia. His Party Had Other Ideas,” New York Times, Janu­ary 16, 2021,­tion-phil­adelphia-repub­lican.html. His wife received the follow­ing threats via email the next morn­ing: “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT,” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. TREAS­ON­OUS SCHMIDTS.” foot­note7_pj558s0 7 Verini, “He Wanted to Count Every Vote.” A 24-hour secur­ity detail remained at Schmidt’s and his parents’ houses well into 2021. foot­note8_px5iz62 8 Al Schmidt (city commis­sioner, Phil­adelphia, PA), Elec­tion Offi­cials Are Under Attack, Bren­nan Center, June 16, 2021. For their safety, his wife and chil­dren left their home after the elec­tion. foot­note9_z2qp­koh 9 Verini, “He Wanted to Count Every Vote.”

Al Schmidt’s is not an excep­tional case. Around the coun­try, elec­tion offi­cials have been under attack in the last year. Long used to stay­ing in the back­ground, they have now found them­selves cast as villains, scape­goated for elec­tion outcomes that some politi­cians and voters did not like.

The most troub­ling and impact­ful villain­iz­a­tion of elec­tion offi­cials in the last year has come from some of Amer­ica’s polit­ical lead­ers. Many have poin­ted to Pres­id­ent Trump’s attempt to dele­git­im­ize the 2020 elec­tion results as “rigged” — and the “Stop the Steal” move­ment he inspired — as the reason for target­ing elec­tion offi­cials. But the prob­lem goes far deeper than one man.

In several states, party lead­ers have censured and replaced offi­cials who insisted on telling the truth about the secur­ity and accur­acy of the elec­tion. foot­note10_boa44ax 10 Riley Snyder, “Nevada Repub­lic­ans Vote to Censure SOS Cegavske over Voter Fraud Alleg­a­tions,” Nevada Inde­pend­ent, April 10, 2021, https://theneva­dainde­pend­­lic­ans-vote-to-censure-sos-cegavske-over-voter-fraud-alleg­a­tions?utm_source=twit­ter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=rop; and Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger, “Michigan Repub­lic­ans Seek to Replace GOP Canvasser Who Certi­fied Elec­tion,” Detroit News, Janu­ary 18, 2021, https://www.detroit­­ics/2021/01/18/michigan-repub­lic­ans-seek-replace-canvasser-who-certi­fied-elec­tion/4202195001. Legis­lat­ors have intro­duced bills that would impose crim­inal penal­ties on elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers for taking steps like proact­ively send­ing mail ballot applic­a­tions to voters or, under certain circum­stances, purchas­ing advert­ise­ments about upcom­ing elec­tions on social media plat­forms like Twit­ter or Face­book. foot­note11_txfsuqs 11 S.B. 413, 89th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Iowa 2021) (enacted) (impos­ing crim­inal penal­ties on elec­tion offi­cials for proact­ively send­ing mail ballot applic­a­tions to voters); and S.B. 0305, 101st Leg., Reg. Sess. (Mich. 2021) (impos­ing crim­inal penal­ties on elec­tion offi­cials for purchas­ing advert­ise­ments about upcom­ing elec­tions on social media plat­forms like Twit­ter or Face­book). Other bills impos­ing crim­inal and civil penal­ties on elec­tion offi­cials that have been intro­duced include S.B. 7, 87th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Tex. 2021) (making it a felony to give a ballot applic­a­tion to a voter who did not ask for one); H.B. 335, 87th Leg. (Tex. 2021) (creat­ing civil and crim­inal penal­ties for elec­tion offi­cials who know­ingly fail to cancel a noncit­izen’s voter regis­tra­tion imme­di­ately upon receipt); and H.B. 2792, 55th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Ariz. 2021) (making it a crime punish­able by up to two and a half years in prison to send ballots to all registered voters). See gener­ally Lawrence Norden, “Protect­ing Amer­ican Demo­cracy Is No Crime: New Laws Could Make Elec­tion Offi­cials Legal Targets,” Foreign Affairs, April 7, 2021, https://www.foreignaf­–04–07/protect­ing-amer­ican-demo­cracy-no-crime; Protect Demo­cracy, Law Forward, and the States United Demo­cracy Center, A Demo­cracy Crisis in the Making: How State Legis­latures are Politi­ciz­ing, Crim­in­al­iz­ing, and Inter­fer­ing with Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion, April 22, 2021, 3–4, https://protect­demo­­cracy-releases-report-on-elec­tion-inter­fer­ence-schemes-by-state-legis­lat­ors; and Nath­aniel Rakich, “It’s Not Just Geor­gia: More than a Dozen Other States Are Trying to Take Power Away from Local Elec­tion Offi­cials,” FiveThirtyEight, Apr. 13, 2021,­gia-more-than-a-dozen-other-states-are-trying-to-take-power-away-from-local-elec­tion-offi­cials. Finally, and most troub­lingly for the future of our demo­cracy, state legis­latures across the nation have taken steps to strip elec­tion offi­cials of the power to run, count, and certify elec­tions, consol­id­at­ing power in their own hands over processes inten­ded to be free of partisan or polit­ical inter­fer­ence. foot­note12_rlbh­fi9 12 A new Geor­gia law replaces the elec­ted secret­ary of state as chair of the State Elec­tion Board with a chair­per­son appoin­ted by the General Assembly and gives this recon­sti­t­uted State Elec­tion Board the author­ity to suspend local elec­tion offi­cials and appoint tempor­ary replace­ments. S.B. 202, 156th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ga. 2021) (enacted). A new Arkan­sas law that the governor refused to sign because it amoun­ted to “a takeover in the review of all elec­tions” creates a process that allows the state legis­lature to directly review elec­tion law complaints, and another new law requires that elec­tion complaints made to county elec­tion boards be sent to the State Board of Elec­tion Commis­sion­ers instead of county clerks or local prosec­utors. Rachel Herzog, “Arkan­sas Session Rolls Out Array of Vote Laws,” Arkan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette, May 9, 2021, https://www.arkansason­ Kansas passed a law over the governor’s veto that prohib­its the exec­ut­ive branch or courts from alter­ing elec­tion laws and requires approval from the Legis­lat­ive Coordin­at­ing Coun­cil prior to the secret­ary of state enter­ing into consent decrees with any court. H.B. 2332, 2021 Leg, Reg. Sess. (Kan. 2021) (enacted). Montana simil­arly passed a law that prevents the governor from chan­ging elec­tion laws in an emer­gency without legis­lat­ive approval. H.B. 429, 67th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Mont. 2021) (enacted). See gener­ally Rakich, “It’s Not Just Geor­gia”; Katie Bern­ard, “Changes to Kansas Elec­tion Rules Become Law Despite Governor Laura Kelly’s Veto,” Kansas City Star, May 3, 2021, https://www.kansas­­ics-govern­ment/article251135959.html; and Nath­aniel Rakich and Elena Mejia, “Where Repub­lic­ans Have Made It Harder to Vote (So Far),” FiveThirtyEight, May 11, 2021,­lic­ans-have-made-it-harder-to-vote-in-11-states-so-far.

All of this repres­ents a mortal danger to Amer­ican demo­cracy, which cannot survive without public servants who can freely and fairly run our elec­tions. We must ensure that they feel not only safe but also suppor­ted and appre­ci­ated for their vital efforts.


What Can Be Done?

Over the past few months, the Bren­nan Center for Justice, the Bipar­tisan Policy Center, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Demo­cratic Governance and Innov­a­tion explored this ques­tion, inter­view­ing and host­ing conver­sa­tions with nearly three dozen elec­tion offi­cials and over 30 experts in demo­cracy, elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion and tech­no­logy, cyber­se­cur­ity, disin­form­a­tion, inter­na­tional elec­tions, beha­vi­oral science, and crim­inal proced­ure. We iden­ti­fied four over­lap­ping areas of concern that threaten the integ­rity of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion in the United States. Each one repres­ents a separ­ate section of this report: viol­ent threats against elec­tion work­ers and their famil­ies; disin­form­a­tion about elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion; partisan and polit­ical inter­fer­ence; and chal­lenges to keep­ing and recruit­ing talen­ted work­ers commit­ted to fair­ness in elec­tions.

We summar­ize some of the most import­ant find­ings and recom­mend­a­tions in this report below:

Find­ing 1: Viol­ent threats against elec­tion work­ers reached an alarm­ing level in 2020 and continue in 2021.

A survey of elec­tion offi­cials commis­sioned by the Bren­nan Center and conduc­ted by Benen­son Strategy Group this spring found that one in three elec­tion offi­cials feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern. foot­note13_36cfarn 13 Benen­son Strategy Group, “The Bren­nan Center for Justice: Local Elec­tions Offi­cial Survey,” April 7, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­tion-offi­cials-survey.

Key Solu­tions:

  • The Depart­ment of Justice (DOJ) should create an elec­tion threats task force to work with federal, state, and local part­ners to prior­it­ize identi­fy­ing, invest­ig­at­ing, and prosec­ut­ing threats against elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers.
  • States should pass new laws and appro­pri­ate funds to provide greater personal secur­ity for elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers. Such meas­ures should include provid­ing greater protec­tion of person­ally iden­ti­fi­able inform­a­tion, grants to purchase home intru­sion detec­tion systems, and funds for train­ing and educa­tion related to main­tain­ing greater personal secur­ity.
  • States should prior­it­ize imple­ment­ing processes to coordin­ate swift invest­ig­a­tion and, where appro­pri­ate, prosec­u­tion of those respons­ible for threats to elec­tion work­ers.

Find­ing 2: Disin­form­a­tion has made elec­tion offi­cials’ jobs more diffi­cult and more danger­ous.

In 2020, polit­ical actors ramped up the lies about elec­tion processes to try to influ­ence elec­tion outcomes, often on social media. This disin­form­a­tion has indelibly changed the lives and careers of elec­tion offi­cials. Indeed, 78 percent of elec­tion offi­cials surveyed by the Bren­nan Center said that social media, where mis- and disin­form­a­tion about elec­tions both took root and spread, has made their job more diffi­cult; 54 percent said they believe that it has made their jobs more danger­ous. Inter­net and media compan­ies have a great deal of work to do to stem the ampli­fic­a­tion of disin­form­a­tion. Here, we list a few key steps that they, along with the federal and state govern­ments, can take to empower elec­tion offi­cials in this struggle.

Key Solu­tions:

  • The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity’s Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency (CISA), work­ing in conjunc­tion with others — includ­ing the U.S. Vote Found­a­tion, the Elec­tion Infra­struc­ture Inform­a­tion Shar­ing and Analysis Center (EI-ISAC), the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC), and state and national elec­tion offi­cial asso­ci­ations — should facil­it­ate the creation of a direct­ory of the more than 8,000 elec­tion offi­cials who are author­it­at­ive sources on the elec­tions they admin­is­ter. Inter­net compan­ies should work with offi­cials in those organ­iz­a­tions to correct false­hoods and better ensure accur­ate content.
  • States should clarify rules that govern party-appoin­ted monit­ors and require train­ing and account­ab­il­ity. In 2020, some party-appoin­ted monit­ors who served as observ­ers before, during, and after Elec­tion Day became sources of disin­form­a­tion, at times unwit­tingly.
  • Inter­net compan­ies — namely, social media plat­forms and search engines — should develop and consist­ently apply trans­par­ent rules that respond to the prob­lem of repeat mis- and disin­form­a­tion spread­ers, includ­ing prom­in­ent users. In severe cases, plat­forms should auto­mat­ic­ally delay the public­a­tion of posts, provid­ing time to review them before count­less users have a chance to see them.

Find­ing 3: Elec­tion offi­cials increas­ingly face pres­sure to prior­it­ize partisan interests over a fair, demo­cratic process.

The notori­ous recor­ded phone call during which Pres­id­ent Trump pres­sured Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger to “find 11,780 votes . . . because we won the state” is only the most well-known and most flag­rant effort to pres­sure an elec­tion offi­cial in 2020 to prior­it­ize partisan interests over a fair demo­cratic process. In our discus­sions with elec­tion offi­cials, many shared their own stor­ies of partisan actors attempt­ing to inter­fere with the conduct of the elec­tion or pres­sure them to favor candid­ates of a partic­u­lar party.

Key Solu­tions:

  • States should explore struc­tural changes to elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion to insu­late elec­tion offi­cials from polit­ical inter­fer­ence, includ­ing changes that estab­lish a protec­ted scope of author­ity for elec­tion offi­cials over­count­ing and certi­fy­ing elec­tions and guar­an­tee a minimum level of fund­ing. Citizen-sponsored ballot initi­at­ives may be required to make these changes.
  • Elec­tion offi­cials should develop a robust code of ethics to help guide discre­tion­ary decision-making and avoid poten­tial conflicts of interest.
  • States should ensure that elec­tion offi­cials have adequate legal repres­ent­a­tion to defend against polit­ic­ally motiv­ated lawsuits and invest­ig­a­tions, and elec­tion offi­cial asso­ci­ations should cultiv­ate and organ­ize pro bono legal assist­ance to the extent that states fail to do so.

Find­ing 4: Despite their found­a­tional import­ance to our demo­cratic system, local elec­tion offi­cials carry an unsus­tain­able work­load compared to other profes­sional staff.

Large numbers of elec­tion offi­cials have resigned in the past year, rais­ing alarm bells. foot­note14_wki4pmq 14 Fredreka Schouten and Kelly Mena, “High-Profile Elec­tions Offi­cials Leave Posts After a Tumul­tu­ous 2020,” CNN, Febru­ary 19, 2021,­ics/elec­tion-offi­cials-lose-and-leave-jobs/index.html. But the wave of depar­tures could soon turn into a tsunami. As of 2020 almost 35 percent of local elec­tion offi­cials were eligible to retire by the 2024 elec­tion, and it is not clear who will replace them, nor whether those will­ing to take the job in the future will share the commit­ment to free and fair elec­tions that was so crit­ical in 2020. foot­note15_4grjyly 15 Paul Gronke, Paul Manson, and Heather Creek, “Under­stand­ing the Career Jour­neys of Today’s Local Elec­tion Offi­cials and Anti­cipat- ing Tomor­row’s Poten­tial Short­age,” Demo­cracy Fund, April 20, 2021, https://demo­cracy­­stand­ing-the-career-jour­neys-of-todays-local-elec­tion-offi­cials-and-anti­cip­at­ing-tomor­rows-poten­tial-short­age. While elec­tion offi­cials cited many reas­ons for leav­ing the field, the unsus­tain­able work­load came up repeatedly in our inter­views.

Key Solu­tions:

  • State and local elec­tion offi­cials should adopt creat­ive staff­ing solu­tions, includ­ing estab­lish­ing rela­tion­ships with colleges and univer­sit­ies, to ease work burdens and create a talent pool for future recruit­ment.
  • State legis­lat­ors should consol­id­ate elec­tions so that they occur concur­rently rather than repeatedly through­out the year.
  • Local elec­tion offi­cials should use exist­ing profes­sional networks (such as state and national elec­tion offi­cial asso­ci­ations) to improve work­ing condi­tions and to better empower elec­tion offi­cials to impact elec­tion policy. They should also hire staff to coordin­ate with these networks and focus on educa­tion, lobby­ing, and commu­nic­a­tions.

End Notes