Election officials may not top the headlines every day, but without them, our democracy wouldn’t function. These county registrar of voters, city clerks, and volunteer poll workers are also our friends, family members, and neighbors. They not only embody our country’s commitment to government by and for the people, they are specially trained and equipped to ensure that every voter is heard.
As election officials, we know just how much work goes into ensuring that our elections are free, fair, and secure. We’ve also seen firsthand the challenges facing our public servants in recent years: the immense political pressure, intimidation, and disinformation that has fueled a disturbing uptick in violent threats. It’s a reality we must face and work together to address.
That’s why, with the midterm elections quickly approaching, now is the time for our leaders to act and provide the necessary resources and funding to protect our elections officials and keep elections safe in 2022 and beyond.
The continued spread of disinformation following the 2020 election has emboldened election deniers to act out against the very people safeguarding our democratic process. Fearing for their safety, and that of their families, an increasing number of election officials are leaving their jobs. In Gillespie County, Texas, which voted overwhelmingly for former President Trump in 2020, an entire elections office recently resigned, with officials citing threats and stalking as the primary driver for the mass departure.
During the past year alone, the Department of Justice has examined more than 1,000 threats made against election officials, finding that 11 percent were serious enough to merit a federal criminal investigation. The FBI, in recent testimony before the Senate, also said that the volume of incidents is so high that it does not have adequate systems in place to process them.
We’ve seen and experienced the kind of intimidation that has forced many of our peers to fear for their safety. And one thing is clear: our nation cannot wait for this inflammatory rhetoric to cross an even more dangerous line. We need to act quickly to protect the civil servants who keep our elections running.
A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation aimed at updating the Electoral Count Act to make the election certification process less prone to the kind of manipulation or subversion that we saw after the 2020 election. This legislation is important, and we hope Congress passes it swiftly. That group also introduced a companion piece of legislation that would target anyone who threatens or intimidates election workers, voters, poll watchers, or candidates. The bill would increase the maximum penalty for such actions from one year in prison to two.
This is an important start, and we applaud the senators involved for paying attention to this issue, but we must do more to stop this harmful trend of harassment and intimidation so that we can truly protect the people running our elections.
That includes new funding streams, through the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, or the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), that election officials can utilize specifically for threat monitoring, safety training, privacy services, and home security.
Earlier this year, the EAC expanded the use of federal election security funds for physical security and social media monitoring at the state and local level. This is a step forward, but more federal resources are needed to combat ongoing threats and harassment against our election officials.
Collaboration among federal, state, and local officials can also help prepare specific plans of action. Looking at Orange County, by creating a task force with members from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, state and local law enforcement, we have become better able to assess and address threats against poll workers and others. This kind of enhanced information sharing and coordination should be implemented across the country.
In several counties across the nation, calls to law enforcement regarding instances of intimidation are often met with questions such as, “Is this even a crime?” It’s vital that election officials and law enforcement work together proactively before elections, which should include training to increase their awareness of threats so they can become more effective in addressing them.
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Additionally, we need more support systems in place for election officials to protect their physical and mental health. Harassment takes a toll. Counseling and emotional support should be offered to help workers on the front lines. Likewise, physical security should be offered to protect those at work and at home when their safety may be jeopardized.
Thankfully, we are beginning to see signs of progress around the country. Already, several states have either introduced or passed legislation aimed at protecting election workers. In Maine, a new law classifies threats against election workers as a crime and offers de-escalation training to civil servants. In California, a bill has been introduced to keep election officials’ home addresses private. In Washington state, it is now a felony to threaten election officials online.
We hope that more states—and the federal government—follow this lead. Our election officials are integral to our democracy. With more effective programs and policy, we can build a safer future for them—and for our democracy.
Natalie Adona is the Assistant Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters for Nevada County, California. Neal Kelley was the Registrar of Voters for Orange County, California, the fifth largest voting jurisdiction in the United States, from 2005 to 2022. Both are members of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy, a campaign of election officials and workers to strengthen U.S. elections in 2022 and 2024.