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Q&A

How to Protect Election Workers

“We can’t have a functioning democracy if we don’t have election officials who feel safe to conduct free and fair elections.”

Over the past year, elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try have come under attack — facing increased harass­ment and threats — and have been scape­goated for elec­tion outcomes that some politi­cians and voters did not like. A new report from the Bren­nan Center and the Bipar­tisan Policy Center outlines concrete steps that lawmakers, admin­is­trat­ors, and inter­net compan­ies can take to protect elec­tion work­ers. An asso­ci­ated survey of elec­tion offi­cials found that one in three feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern. Lawrence Norden and Liz Howard, two of the report’s coau­thors, help place these find­ings into context.

In your paper, you cite a survey about the threats that elec­tion offi­cials have faced in the past year. Can you put those numbers into context?

Norden: After any elec­tion, you’ll have some people who are unhappy with the results, and even some people who might complain about conduct of elec­tion offi­cials. But for the most part, elec­tion offi­cials are in the back­ground during elec­tions, and that’s where they want to be.  They’re the refer­ees, not the play­ers. The 2020 elec­tion was differ­ent in large part because you had some very power­ful voices, includ­ing of course then-Pres­id­ent Trump, who were actu­ally point­ing to elec­tion offi­cials and express­ing their unhap­pi­ness that the system was unfair to them. Elec­tion offi­cials were brought into the public eye and have the ire of a segment of the public direc­ted at them in a way that we have never seen before in the United States. It was unpre­ced­en­ted.  

Howard: These aren’t just numbers; these are people. We have heard so many personal stor­ies from elec­tion offi­cials who have had to pack go-bags for their chil­dren, to leave their house, or to pay for addi­tional secur­ity meas­ures at their personal homes. It’s some­thing I’ve never heard before.

How do increased threats to elec­tion offi­cials reflect broader attempts to under­mine the elect­oral process itself?

Norden: This star­ted out as an effort to dispute the 2020 elec­tion but has become an effort to under­mine faith in elec­tions, period. There’s been a lot of work to villain­ize elec­tion offi­cials. It goes far beyond threat­en­ing phone calls and harass­ment of elec­tion offi­cials and their famil­ies and work­ers. It includes efforts to crim­in­al­ize minor infrac­tions, to replace elec­tion offi­cials, to take away their abil­ity to help their voters, and to impose penal­ties for taking actions to help their voters. 

These actions — along with wide­spread voter suppres­sion efforts — are part of an attempt to discredit not just elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors but elec­tions them­selves. Once you do that, the ques­tion becomes, why have elec­tions at all?  If you can’t trust elec­tions, why have them? That’s why we think it’s so danger­ous. On a personal level, it’s very upset­ting. We work with elec­tion offi­cials all the time. Of course, Liz is a former elec­tion offi­cial herself. We know how much they did this past year, what a tough year it was for them. But it’s also very upset­ting for our demo­cracy. 

How has disin­form­a­tion intens­i­fied the threats against elec­tion offi­cials?

Norden: Disin­form­a­tion is at the root of all of this. You would­n’t have people threat­en­ing elec­tion offi­cials and you would­n’t have legis­lat­ors getting away with crim­in­al­iz­ing elec­tion offi­cial conduct for what are minor infrac­tions. You would­n’t have justi­fic­a­tion for most of the voter suppres­sion laws if it wasn’t for disin­form­a­tion. So, the lies about the elec­tion, about what elec­tion offi­cials do, and about how elec­tions are run are the found­a­tion for everything that we’re seeing. 

Howard:  One of the most import­ant things that inter­net compan­ies can do is acknow­ledge that elec­tion offi­cials play a crit­ical role in our soci­ety and that they are trus­ted messen­gers. Our report includes a pair of recom­mend­a­tions. First, we believe that the U.S. Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency is the right agency to spear­head a list of elec­tion offi­cials and a list of social media accounts that are provid­ing accur­ate elec­tion inform­a­tion. Then, the social media plat­forms need to part­ner with the elec­tion offi­cials to identify effect­ive meas­ures to promote and amplify those accur­ate messages.  

Norden:  Elec­tion offi­cials have said that disin­form­a­tion on social media has made their jobs more diffi­cult because they have to handle refut­ing all the social media disin­form­a­tion. But it’s also made their jobs more danger­ous. We’re recom­mend­ing ways to promote accur­ate inform­a­tion from elec­tion offi­cials. We also think social media compan­ies could do more to stop the spread of disin­form­a­tion. It’s become clear that a small number of people are respons­ible for a lot of the spread­ing of disin­form­a­tion. Social media compan­ies have been a bit reluct­ant to push back against some of those accounts, because they are often the most famous and the most power­ful people and have a lot of follow­ers. But as the Face­book Over­sight Board has argued — and others have too — the rules should be applied uniformly, even to the most power­ful. 

A recent Politico article warned of possible mass retire­ments by elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers. What are the poten­tial implic­a­tions for Amer­ican demo­cracy? 

Norden: First, with massive retire­ments, you have the poten­tial to lose a tremend­ous amount of know­ledge. Turnover isn’t neces­sar­ily bad; it’s good to get new people, and hope­fully we can. But there’s a lot of concern about whether we can hire people who are going to be good at the jobs and are also commit­ted to free and fair elec­tions. 

Right now, there are people around the coun­try running for office expli­citly on the idea that if they were in power, there would have been a differ­ent elec­tion result. That’s very scary. The coun­try’s become so polar­ized, and everything is defined around, “Are you with us or against us?”  But whatever you think about the polar­iz­a­tion of the coun­try, there should­n’t be sides in admin­is­ter­ing an elec­tion.

Howard:  Local elec­tion offi­cials work where the bulk of our demo­cracy really happens. They are largely the ones who inter­act directly with voters about how to register to vote, how to cast a vote, whether their vote coun­ted, the accur­acy of the elec­tion results, and about everything in between.

Elec­tion offi­cials often have a very close connec­tion to their communit­ies and to their constitu­ents, includ­ing on a personal level. In Wiscon­sin, for example, some of the smal­lest elec­tion juris­dic­tions have only 50 people. The one elec­tion offi­cial knows every­one  in their juris­dic­tion. And these elec­tion offi­cials worked around the clock to protect our elec­tion and our voters in 2020 despite the pandemic, the misin­form­a­tion, and the threats because of this connec­tion to the community and commit­ment to civic service. Losing any one of the elec­tion offi­cials who over­came all of the 2020 obstacles to conduct a secure and free elec­tion is a concern. Losing a huge number of these exper­i­enced public servants is very upset­ting and scary but, under the current circum­stances, not surpris­ing.

Your paper outlines a number of reforms and solu­tions — start­ing with ones that involve invest­ig­at­ing and prosec­ut­ing indi­vidu­als who threaten elec­tion offi­cials. 

Norden: There have been excep­tion­ally few prosec­u­tions of people who have threatened elec­tion offi­cials, even in some cases that involved damaged prop­erty. There’s no ques­tion that these actions are illegal under state law, and often under federal law. The lack of prosec­u­tion sends a message to the perpet­rat­ors that it’s OK to do what they’re doing. 

To this day, elec­tion offi­cials talk about the threats that they’re facing. Katie Hobbs, the secret­ary of state of Arizona, recently had to get around-the-clock protec­tion from state police because of the threats that she was receiv­ing. There was a pipe bomb in an Iowa polling place earlier this year. And there really have been very few reper­cus­sions for these threats. 

The Depart­ment of Justice has a role to play in address­ing this issue. Changes are needed at the state and local level, too. State attor­neys general need to make this a prior­ity. States can pass laws to protect elec­tion offi­cials, to give them resources. It’s ridicu­lous, but elec­tion offi­cials have had to buy their own home secur­ity systems because they were threatened. They’ve had to flee their homes or figure out on their own to get their personal inform­a­tion off the inter­net.  There should be resources to help them do that.

What is one final takeaway from your paper that read­ers should remem­ber?  

Howard: Every­one has a role to play in protect­ing our elec­tion offi­cials, which in turn is a crit­ical compon­ent of protect­ing our demo­cracy — both of which are under attack right now. 

Norden: We can’t have a func­tion­ing demo­cracy if we don’t have elec­tion offi­cials who feel safe to conduct free and fair elec­tions. It sounds crazy that we have to worry about that in the United States, but that’s unfor­tu­nately where we are at this moment.

Read the full report, Elec­tion Offi­cials Under Attack.