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Estimated Costs for Protecting Election Workers from Threats of Physical Violence

The Brennan Center estimates that approximately $300 million is needed for key measures to keep election offices and workers physically secure for the next five years.

Published: May 3, 2022

To view a more detailed break­­­­­down of cost estim­ates, click here.

Since 2020, elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try have been facing a wave of new threats. The danger demand­ing the most imme­di­ate atten­tion is the rapid increase in harass­ment, intim­id­a­tion, and threats of phys­ical viol­ence direc­ted at elec­tion work­ers.

A recent Bren­nan Center survey found that 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. These risks are begin­ning to take a toll as exper­i­enced public servants are forced out of the profes­sion because they fear for their safety. Thirty percent of local offi­cials said that they knew one or more elec­tion work­ers who have left at least in part because of fear for their safety, increased threats, or intim­id­a­tion, and 60 percent said they are concerned that such threats will make it diffi­cult to retain and recruit elec­tion work­ers in future elec­tions. One in five offi­cials state that they are unlikely to continue to serve until the 2024 elec­tion. 

Threats to elec­tion work­ers simply for doing their jobs repres­ent a threat to Amer­ican demo­cracy itself. Among the many reas­ons is that in a system already over­burdened by a lack of resources, the loss of a signi­fic­ant percent­age of exper­i­enced work­ers will increase the risk of mistakes, further under­min­ing confid­ence in a system that has seen a dramatic drop in public faith in recent years.

Despite the chal­lenges they face, most elec­tion offi­cials find real enjoy­ment in their jobs. It is crit­ical to do more to make them and other elec­tion work­ers feel safe so the best of them remain and elec­tions continue to work. Given the national scope of the prob­lem, we urge the federal govern­ment to take respons­ib­il­ity for ensur­ing that states and local­it­ies have the resources they need.

Below we detail some of the increased costs that elec­tion offices across the coun­try face as they seek to protect their work­ers. In total, we estim­ate that these import­ant meas­ures would cost around $300 million nation­ally, a relat­ively small price to pay given their signi­fic­ance to our demo­cracy and national secur­ity.

Bullet­proof­ing Elec­tion Offices

Total cost: $44 million to $73 million

When conspir­acy-driven protest­ers showed up to elec­tion offices in the after­math of the 2020 elec­tion, they didn’t just bring signs, mega­phones and cameras. Many carried guns. Armed protest­ers were seen in front of vote count­ing loca­tions in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and guns also feature prom­in­ently in the threats that elec­tion offi­cials receive.

A Wiscon­sin elec­tion offi­cial saw “online discus­sions about types of ammuni­tion and guns to use on” her. In Vermont, a man shouted at an elec­tion offi­cial that “this might be a good time to put a f----—pis­tol in your f----—mouth and pull the trig­ger.” In Oregon, an elec­tion offi­cial looked down from her office to see the words “Vote don’t work. Next time bullets” painted in large white letters in the park­ing lot below. 

In response to these threats and the broader increase in anti-govern­ment extrem­ism, local govern­ments are increas­ingly look­ing to install bullet-resist­ant barri­ers in public-facing offices. This response is not limited to the large counties and muni­cip­al­it­ies that received the most atten­tion in 2020: Follow­ing a series of online and in-person threats, the elec­tion offi­cial in Chaf­fee County, Color­ado — a county with a popu­la­tion of 19,000 — upgraded her office with bullet­proof doors and glass to keep her staff safe. The Jack­son County, Oregon, elec­tion offi­cial whose park­ing lot was painted with threat­en­ing language asked the state for about $80,000 to install bullet-resist­ant glass and trans­ac­tion windows in the lobby and at public-facing coun­ters in the office. 

We estim­ate that it would cost $44 million to $73 million to install bullet­proof barri­ers in local elec­tion offices nation­wide. Actual costs could vary consid­er­ably depend­ing on the size and age of elec­tion offices, other public func­tions that the office build­ing serves, specific threats, and exist­ing bullet-resist­ant barri­ers in place. 

Panic Alarm Systems 

Total cost for five years: $95 million

As stew­ards of demo­cratic parti­cip­a­tion, elec­tion work­ers natur­ally hold posi­tions that require regu­lar inter­ac­tion with the public. This includes cent­ral staff regis­ter­ing voters, issu­ing ballots, and answer­ing ques­tions year-round in elec­tion offices that may or may not have secur­ity features to restrict and monitor access. But it also includes poll work­ers serving a flood of voters in spaces that rarely have mean­ing­ful secur­ity restric­tions. The risk of in-person conflict has increased for both settings and has not abated since 2020. Just this year, the elec­tion office in Nevada County, Cali­for­nia was forced to tempor­ar­ily suspend walk-up services after protest­ers forced their way through office doors that had been restric­ted under Covid-19 safety proced­ures.

Secur­ity experts have long recom­men­ded duress alarm systems, or “panic buttons,” for govern­ment facil­it­ies that face similar public threats, includ­ing schoolspost offices, and courtrooms. Imple­ment­ing these systems in elec­tion offices and polling places would allow work­ers to quickly and incon­spicu­ously alert emer­gency person­nel in the event of a secur­ity breach or other emer­gency.

Work­ers may also face threats in transit between elec­tion offices and polling places, partic­u­larly when they are carry­ing votes and other sens­it­ive elec­tion mater­i­als. In these cases, their loca­tion may be unknown. Secur­ity compan­ies now offer GPS-enabled panic buttons for these situ­ations that allow an indi­vidual to send an alert contain­ing their exact loca­tion with the single push of a button. 

We estim­ate that it would cost $95 million over five years to provide panic buttons for each local elec­tion office and polling place nation­wide. 

Key Card Access Restric­tions and Camera Surveil­lance

Total cost for five years: $102 million 

As noted in a previ­ous Bren­nan Center analysis, key card access restric­tion and camera surveil­lance systems are crit­ical meas­ures for safe­guard­ing elec­tion infra­struc­ture against insider threats. It is for this reason that states like Color­ado are consid­er­ing bills to require such access and monit­or­ing of voting equip­ment. But these systems are also neces­sary for uphold­ing the phys­ical secur­ity of elec­tion offices.

While public access is neces­sary for elec­tion offices, offi­cials can help keep staff safe by limit­ing the number of public entry points to the office and clearly delin­eat­ing the spaces where members of the public can go to receive service. Key card access systems allow staff to use restric­ted entrances to the build­ing, where they will not be followed or confron­ted by members of the public, and to access areas of the office where they can be isol­ated in the event of a secur­ity breach.

Camera surveil­lance is needed to monitor public and non-public areas, dissuade indi­vidu­als from carry­ing out inap­pro­pri­ate beha­vior, and identify indi­vidu­als follow­ing any incid­ents of intim­id­a­tion or viol­ence. Elec­tion offices should imple­ment camera surveil­lance, along with adequate light­ing, in interior and exter­ior areas, as confront­a­tions may take place in park­ing lots of govern­ment facil­it­ies rather than in the office itself. 

We previ­ously estim­ated that it would cost $102 million nation­wide for local elec­tion offices to purchase and imple­ment access restric­tion and camera surveil­lance systems. Because this estim­ate focused just on restrict­ing and monit­or­ing access to areas with sens­it­ive elec­tion equip­ment, this is likely a low-end estim­ate. Adequately protect­ing elec­tion offi­cials may require monit­or­ing more spaces, entry points, and exter­ior areas of elec­tion offices.

Personal Inform­a­tion Protec­tion

Total cost for five years: $50 million

The online avail­ab­il­ity of elec­tion work­ers’ personal iden­ti­fi­able inform­a­tion — includ­ing home addresses and personal phone numbers — has been used by bad actors to facil­it­ate threats, harass­ment, and intim­id­a­tion against the work­ers and their famil­ies. In response, some elec­tion offices are look­ing to contract with outside providers that help scrub person­ally identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion from the inter­net, conduct monthly checks to ensure that inform­a­tion does not return, and offer tailored guid­ance on how to protect personal inform­a­tion in the future. 

We estim­ate that it would cost $50 million over five years for each local elec­tion office nation­wide to purchase such services for one to three of the office’s highest profile employ­ees.

• • •

This is by no means an exhaust­ive list of the addi­tional costs state and local govern­ments will face as they seek to protect their elec­tion work­ers from threats, harass­ment, and viol­ence. Elec­tion offices may need to hire secur­ity to protect work­ers during peri­ods when public atten­tion is highest, which could cost tens of thou­sands of dollars per juris­dic­tion over the next two elec­tion cycles. Some juris­dic­tions are facing higher insur­ance costs to cover their polling places follow­ing the Janu­ary 6 riots and insur­ance compan­ies’ percep­tions on the risk of polit­ical tensions lead­ing to viol­ence. And many elec­tion offi­cials need resources to improve secur­ity at their homes, with items such as door­bell cameras and home secur­ity system subscrip­tions, as threats and intim­id­a­tion have not been limited to these offi­cials’ places of work.

Never­the­less, it should be clear that for a relat­ively minimal invest­ment the federal govern­ment could make signi­fic­ant progress in protect­ing the most import­ant elec­tion resource we have: the tens of thou­sands of work­ers who are neces­sary for our elec­tions to succeed.