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.