Election workers, Des Moines, Callanan Middle School
Election workers have historically been middle-aged and elderly women. Increasing harassment of election workers has driven many of them out of volunteering. Photo credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Election integrity experts are sounding the alarm that many election workers will leave their positions on the front lines of democracy unless they are protected from the types of threats and harassment that hundreds of them experienced after the 2020 election. 

According to a 2022 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice, 1 in 5 local election officials are “very” or “somewhat unlikely” to continue serving through 2024. The survey stated that “politicians’ attacks on the system, stress, and retirement plans are the primary reasons they plan to leave their jobs.” 

“There’s an air of menace that causes people to say, ‘Oh, the heck with this, I don’t want to do this anymore,’” said Elaine Kamarck, founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institute.

Kamarck added that there seems to be a concerted effort to terrify election workers. Many people who believe that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election, she said, feel that election workers participated in “funny business” and counted the votes incorrectly, even though repeated investigations have found no evidence of that.  

“It is intimidation. It’s the sort of intimidation that happens in banana republics,” she said. “It’s a disaster. I mean, it’s just an awful, awful problem.”

Kamarck said that the purpose of the individuals sending these threats is to “strike fear and try and scare you away from doing your job.” 

And that’s exactly what they have done. 

“What’s going on is terrifying,” said Jan BenDor, who worked for 18 years as an election administrator in Michigan. 

The Department of Justice identified more than 850 incidents of threats and harassment targeting election workers, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service.  

This atmosphere of intimidation caused the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) to call on all leaders to denounce threats of violence against election workers and officials. A report it adopted in February of last year showed the 2020 election cycle to be the “most challenging in recent memory,” where “unrelenting misinformation” led extremists to threaten and endanger election workers. 

Kamarck described this as a significant assault on democracy. 

“What they’re trying to do is undo the will of the people, and it is one of the most serious threats we’ve ever faced,” she said. 

election official, polls, Minneapolis, MN.

Volunteer and paid election workers alike make elections happen. Threats toward them are causing shortages across the US. Photo credit: Lorie Shaull / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Virginia Martin, a former election commissioner in Columbia County, NY, for 10 years, feels election workers should never have to face threats of violence. 

“They’re the front line of democracy,” Martin said. “They’re the ones that make democracy work every election day.” 

The polarization over the election process and increased threats of violence toward election workers have caused a chilling effect. And now, many people who formerly helped ensure that elections ran smoothly will no longer participate. 

In some cases, mass retirements would simply lead to a lack of experience and competence. In others, the open positions might be filled by people who not only lack the expertise to run a smooth election but also the will to do so. 

BenDor noted that many election workers are torn because they don’t want to abandon their commitment, but the threat to their safety is overwhelming.

“What they’re trying to do is undo the will of the people, and it is one of the most serious threats we’ve ever faced.” –– Elaine Kamarck 

While the current state of threats towards election workers today is scary, BenDor believes the problem can be solved. 

“We have to prioritize safety,” she said. “And it has to be common sense safety right there on the ground –– none of this waving your hand at the details.” 

BenDor worked at the local jurisdiction level, where, she said, all of the workers need protection. But navigating that protection can be very tricky. To station a local police officer for safety at the voting site, she added, could easily be interpreted as voter intimidation and a violation of the Voting Rights Act. 

Kamarck said federal laws against the intimidation of election workers are necessary so that the FBI will investigate threats against them as federal crimes. 

Congress has introduced numerous bills to address election worker safety directly. They would set forth provisions related to election security and make it illegal to threaten an election worker. Some of them are stuck in committee; one passed in the House but hasn’t gotten a vote in the Senate, and another failed in the Senate.

In 2021, the DOJ launched a task force to combat threats against election workers, and it announced last month that one case related to the work of that task force had resulted in a guilty plea. 

“The Justice Department will not tolerate illegal threats of violence against public officials,” Attorney General Merrick Garland stated. “Threats of violence against election officials are dangerous for people’s safety and dangerous for our democracy, and we will use every resource at our disposal to disrupt and investigate those threats and hold perpetrators accountable.”

But the numbers seem to tell another story. While hundreds of cases have been reported, there are only a handful of convictions. 

The volume of threats toward election workers is frightening, BenDor said, and there is more work to be done. The scariest issue at hand is the lack of enforcement, she said.

“If we can’t run elections with competent people being safe, we’re in deep trouble.” 

This story was written by a member of our Mentor Apprentice Program (MAP). It gives aspiring journalists an opportunity to hone their craft while covering national and international news under the tutelage of seasoned reporters and editors. You can learn more about the MAP and how you can support our efforts to safeguard the future of journalism here.


Author

  • Elise Kline is a graduate journalism student at American University and a member of WhoWhatWhy's Mentor-Apprentice Program. She has previously written for The DC Line, covering menstrual equity and public policy, and The Wash, covering politics, crime, mental health, and lending discrimination.