Election workers faced new threats after 2020 election. Experts fear it will drive them away

The army of civil servants who administer American elections, once cloaked in anonymity, now find their photos splashed on social media accounts, their addresses posted online and their voicemails filled by violent threats.

Fueled by false, baseless conspiracy theories about a stolen presidential election, local election officials have been besieged by an unprecedented wave of threats and intimidation.

Last summer, the Justice Department formed a task force that is reviewing hundreds of potential threats, and in January two men were indicted for alleged death threats against election officials. Lawmakers in at least six states have introduced bills to protect election workers.

But the threats have forced election officials to confront new questions about whether they want to risk their personal safety to work in a field that is fast becoming as politically charged as the elections they administer. A drain on experience and manpower in elections administration could materialize into real consequences for voters, experts fear, such as consolidated polling places and long lines on Election Day. 

One in three election officials said they feel unsafe because of their job in a 2021 survey, and one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

“They’ve been under siege,” said David Becker, director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “It’s like they’ve been drafted into a war they didn’t even know was being fought. It is exhausting for them.”

The 2022 midterms could be the first big test for the fallout. An exodus of election workers already has begun after the 2020 election, and retirement looms for a large chunk of those who remain in the field.

Losing professional election workers drains the industry of expertise that helps elections run smoothly, experts say, and the cocktail of threats, the pandemic and new legal restrictions could make it harder to recruit the swarm of temporary poll workers hired each cycle.

That could force local election overseers to consolidate precincts because they don't have enough workers and cause longer lines on Election Day.

It also opens the door for the people peddling election conspiracies to seize control of local offices that oversee the nonpartisan work of administering elections. The Brennan Center for Justice is predicting record-breaking fundraising in campaigns for offices that oversee elections administration, now a political battleground.

“Years ago we used to lament about how election officials toiled away in obscurity and nobody seemed to care about the election administration work that was being done and how it was being done," said Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the elections program at Democracy Fund. "This is something new, and it’s deeply troubling.”

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Poll workers help voters at a polling place in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Violent threats against election workers surging

Before 2020, threats against election workers were rare, experts told USA TODAY. But conspiracy theories about a stolen election, fueled by former President Donald Trump, turned those officials into targets, they said.

More than half of election workers surveyed in a 2021 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice said social media, where misinformation often spreads, has made their jobs more dangerous.

"Before 2020 nobody knew who election officials were for the most part," said Larry Norden, senior director of elections and government at the Brennan Center for Justice. "In 2020, election officials became a focal point for distrust in the elections system, for blaming them for election results that some people didn’t like.”

Norden said the threats haven't been limited to states where election results were contentious, such as Georgia and Michigan.

In January, the Justice Department announced indictments against two men for threatening election officials and informed state officials nationwide that some federal grant funding could be used to protect election workers.

A Las Vegas man is accused of making a death threat to a Nevada state election employee, saying "I hope your children get molested." A Texas man was indicted for making threats against Georgia election officials in a Craigslist post.

"If we want our country back we have to exterminate these people," the Texas man wrote, according to the Justice Department. "One good loyal Patriot deer hunter in camo and a rifle can send a very clear message to these corrupt governors.. milita (sic) up Georgia it’s time to spill blood."

Those two cases are among about 850 reports the department has reviewed since its formation last summer.

In contrast, after the 2020 presidential election, federal and state law enforcement did not take action on threats against election officials in Vermont because the state didn't have strong enough laws to protect those people, Secretary of State Jim Condos said.

In voicemails left for employees in Condos's office, a man spouted election conspiracies and made reference to "poison gas" and "firing squads."

States introduce protections - and penalties - for election workers

Now Vermont is one of at least six states where lawmakers are proposing new protections for election workers. Bills related to election worker safety have also been introduced in Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The maximum penalty for someone found guilty of making a credible threat against an individual in Vermont is one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. But a bill being debated in the state legislature would increase the maximum prison sentence to three years if those threats are made against election officials or other public employees to influence their work.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who is also president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said it’s on states to adopt laws to better protect workers, since states run their own elections.

“There should be no tolerance for any threats against any election workers,’’ he said. “The bottom line is these people have volunteered their time to bring democracy to the people of the United States, and they deserve appreciation.”

“There are ways to change things, and threats and harassment of election officials should never be tolerated,’’ he said.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin spoke to the state House and Governmental Affairs Committee in Baton Rouge about his proposed emergency plan for the fall elections. Ardoin, who is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, praised poll workers for stepping up during the pandemic.

In some states, though, lawmakers have introduced bills that would penalize election workers for good-faith mistakes they might make in their job or criminalize actions they might take to help voters.

Bills proposed in 18 states already this year threaten election officials with criminal prosecution or civil penalties, according to the Voting Rights Lab. Those proposals "are putting the bullseye on election officials," Patrick said. 

For example, state lawmakers in Florida adopted a new law last year that would make leaving a ballot dropbox unattended subject to a $25,000 fine.

"They’re not threats to election officials in the same way, but they’re all part of the same narrative that results in people threatening election officials or even harming them," Norden said. "The message that’s going out is election officials are deciding who wins as opposed to just counting the votes.”

Last year, Becker joined with Ben Ginsberg, former President George W. Bush's campaign attorney, and Bob Bauer, former President Barack Obama's White House counsel, to form a legal defense fund for election workers facing threats, harassment or criminalization of parts of their jobs.

“I think what election officials would tell you is they weren’t sure anyone would have their back," Becker said.

'Perfect storm' for election disaster

The confluence of election workers leaving the field and new election laws that encourage more people to vote in person on Election Day in some states could be the "perfect storm" that leads to "catastrophic lines," Patrick said.

New laws like those adopted in Georgia last year, such as a shorter window for absentee voting, encourage more election day voting and will require more people to work the polls at the same time that more election officials are leaving their posts. The pandemic and now new threats against election workers have only exacerbated longstanding difficulties with recruiting poll workers. 

Donald Palmer, chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, said many jurisdictions had reported having a hard time recruiting poll workers for years and that the problem was particularly acute in 2020 during the pandemic.

He said he started to see a drop in the number of older poll workers in 2018 when more of them started to retire. The trend continued when the pandemic hit and senior citizens were considered particularly vulnerable.

“They are of that age to retire, and the pandemic really sort of increased that rate,” said Palmer.

The proportion of poll workers 61 years old to 70 years old decreased from 32 percent in 2016 to 27.3 percent in 2020, according to an EAC survey. Poll workers between 26 years old and 40 years old jumped from 8 percent to 15 percent during that same period.

The total number of poll workers didn't change much from the 2016 presidential election, but more than half the election officials reported having a hard time recruiting enough poll workers during the pandemic. 

Palmer said more poll workers are still needed, and election officials are urging more young people to sign up.

“We need young Americans to step up into those roles,’’ Palmer said.

Poll workers help voters at a polling place in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) ORG XMIT: NYSW120

Help wanted

The shortage of poll workers was really felt during the 2020 primaries, when elections officials had to close some polling sites and consolidate others. By the November general election and after a push by civil rights groups and officials, more people signed up to work the polls. There were 775,101 poll workers for the general election, the EAC found.

“We were able to respond in a pandemic and get enough poll workers where it wasn’t a total meltdown,’’ Palmer said.

Canton Township, Michigan, clerk Michael Siegrist already is preparing to have fewer poll workers in 2022. He is consolidating precincts ahead of an April deadline so he can run the election with 275 or 250 election inspectors instead of about 300 used previously.

Siegrist, who has faced threats himself and seen his photo splashed on social media accounts, said he fears he won't be able to get enough Republican poll workers to help with tasks that require bipartisan presence, such as opening a jammed tabulator or helping a voter with their ballot.

“The system is very secure and the danger of prosecution is a deterrent, but from a public perception standpoint you want to make sure the people feel like there’s some balance going on in that process," he said.

During National Poll Worker Recruitment Day on Jan. 25. some state Republican parties painted poll worker recruitment, typically a nonpartisan effort, with the same kind of rhetoric used to fuel conspiracies about partisan election interference.

The North Carolina GOP tweeted: "Grassroots volunteers are vital to ensuring free and fair elections in 2022 as we combat Democrats' unconstitutional assault on our most basic voting protections, so sign up with your local BOE today!"

Civil rights and voting rights groups plan to continue to recruit poll workers and election workers. Many ramped up recruitment efforts during the pandemic.

“If we don’t, it could be a real problem,’’ said Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, a social justice group.

Jun 25, 2021; Washington DC, USA. Barbara R. Arnwine, president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, speaks at a press conference held by Black Voters Matter, a voter rights organization, in front of the Supreme Court.

She said restrictive election laws adopted by some states have made the jobs of election officials harder. “We know that they tied the hands of these election boards in their ability to recruit poll workers,’’ she said. 

Arnwine and other civil rights leaders acknowledge the effort is more challenging with increasing hostility toward election officials and workers. “It’s scary because mistakes are part of any administrative process,’’ Arnwine said.

Potential risks from the pandemic were enough to stop Ron Davis from returning last year to his role as an election judge in Severn, Maryland. His 31-year-old son, who lives with him and his wife, needed a liver transplant.

Davis is also a grandfather of three, including a three-month old. All were vulnerable.

“My family is my family,’’ said Davis, 60. “I cannot put them at risk if I don’t have to.”

Davis served as an election judge in 2019 and twice before that as a poll worker. If the pandemic eases up, Davis will consider returning to work at the polls. “People with integrity are needed,” he said.

Lucy Burns has already signed up for next month’s training to help manage polling sites in Missouri. The molecular biologist has worked at polls in Chesterfield in recent years, including during the pandemic. Like she did last year, Burns said she will wear her N95 mask for the long days at work.

Lucy Burns, an elections manager in Missouri, said she took several precautions during the pandemic. She has already signed up to work the polls again this year.

She said sites are also equipped with sanitizers and masks for voters and there’s social distancing between workers and voters.

“It feels pretty safe,’’ said Burns, 58, who has helped with elections since 2015. “We just have to help each other to make sure it’s a safe environment.’’

Burns, who often worked from 5 a.m.to 8 p.m., said she sometimes questions whether she will return for the next election.

“I keep questioning myself, ‘Do I want to come back? And then every time after each election, I feel so good,’’ she said. “I tell myself, ‘I will come back because I feel like I had helped people.’’