By Matt Vasilogambros
Stateline 

Election workers, facing threats, vow: 'You are not disrupting the democratic process'

 

December 7, 2023

Ballot opening lead Eldon Miller works at the King County Elections headquarters, Friday, Nov. 17, in Renton. The office began stocking Narcan, the nasal spray version of overdose-reversal drug naloxone, after receiving a letter laced with fentanyl in the summer and was evacuated the day after Election Day after receiving a similar envelope. Photo by Lindsey Wasson for the AP.

Hundreds of election workers in Washington state's second-largest county were busy opening mail-in ballots earlier this month when one of them came across a plain white envelope. As she cut it open, white powder leaked out.

She carefully took off her gloves, put them down, backed away and called her supervisor. Workers evacuated the building and waited for the Tacoma Fire Department to arrive. While first responders tested the substance, Democratic and Republican observers gathered at the emergency management center looking at security feeds of the election office to ensure there wasn't any ballot tampering.

Pierce County Auditor Linda Farmer, the nonpartisan election official for the metropolitan area south of Seattle, said she felt lucky no one got hurt.

"We've got a really strong, resilient workforce," she said, choking up in an interview with Stateline. "Nobody left. They were a little shaken up, understandably unsure of what was going on. But everybody marched right into that building, and said, 'Oh, heck no, you are not disrupting the democratic process.'"

Pierce County was one of four Washington state county election offices to get such a letter that day, with some receiving the narcotic fentanyl and others baking soda.

Local election offices in California, Georgia, Nevada and Oregon also received powder-filled letters around the early November election. The FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are investigating the letters. No charges have been filed.

Since the 2020 presidential election, state and local election officials nationwide have been bombarded with threats, as lies perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his allies around "rigged" elections have fueled conspiracy theories and inspired violent reactions to the bureaucrats and temporary workers who run the United States' democratic process.

Facing ongoing threats, election workers have shored up their safety protocols and used state and federal grant money to build more secure facilities. They have lobbied state legislators to add new protections for election workers and increase penalties for those who harass, intimidate or threaten them. This year, lawmakers in several states heeded those calls.

But going into next year's presidential election, local election workers are visible in a way they never wanted. Officials are leaving in droves, and the brain drain could lead to more errors, providing fuel for conspiracy theories.

As of late August, the U.S. Justice Department's Election Threats Task Force had charged 14 people with making threats to election workers and political candidates since the task force was created in 2021, so far leading to nine convictions that came with yearslong criminal sentences.

These attacks are terrorism, said Kim Wyman, who previously served as the Republican secretary of state for Washington and as a senior election security adviser for the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

"These are attacks on our democratic institutions," said Wyman, who is now a senior fellow for elections at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Bipartisan Policy Center. "These are people trying to break the election system for whatever reason. And we have a job to do. We need to guard against that and fight back."

States add new protections

This year, state lawmakers in Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma enacted new protections for election workers and increased criminal penalties for those who threaten or interfere in their work.

Those added to the protections that lawmakers in California, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont and Washington imposed last year.

In Michigan, people who harass election officials now can face up to 93 days in prison and a fine of up to $500 for their first offense. A second offense can lead to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. Subsequent offenses would bump up to felony charges from misdemeanors.

Michigan state Rep. Kara Hope, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said she is disappointed threatening behavior has been normalized.

"We can't have people afraid to work elections," she told Stateline. "My hope with this bill is that it will give people peace of mind."

Feds Push Local Election Officials to Boost Security Ahead of 2024

In Minnesota, a new civil penalty for intimidating or interfering with election workers carries a $1,000 fine.

The provision was part of a broader voting bill that included the adoption of automatic voter registration and a permanent absentee voter list. The measure also allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. The legislation passed along party lines, with no Republican support. Republicans criticized the package for not being bipartisan.

Democratic state Rep. Emma Greenman, who sponsored the bill in her chamber, said the disinformation associated with the 2020 presidential election could threaten workers' safety.

"I don't think people draw the logical consequences when they talk about a stolen election," she said. "What it means is, 'I am putting people in my community, I'm putting public servants and volunteers at risk.'

In a February survey by the Minnesota Association of County Officers, more than half of the local election workers who responded said they or someone associated with the elections office faced intimidation while performing their duties.

Nationally, election officials are expressing similar concerns.

Staving off an election worker exodus

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit voting rights organization housed at New York University School of Law, estimates election offices need $300 million in federal funding over the next five years for increased security. That money could be used to fortify buildings, build more secure ballot-counting facilities and add new security training.

A third of local election officials nationwide have faced threats, intimidation or abuse, according to an April survey by the Brennan Center. The voting rights organization conducted 852 interviews of local election officials; around half of whom said they are worried about their and their colleagues' personal safety.

Some county election offices around the country have begun stocking Narcan, a nasal spray that reverses an overdose of fentanyl.

The Fight Against Election Lies Never Ends for Local Officials

There is increasing awareness of these threats to election workers, said Liz Howard, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program.

When Howard served as the deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections, she said, she made some unpopular decisions, but she never received death threats from voters. The landscape has changed, she said.

"Election officials are increasingly preparing for all hazards," said Howard. "As the threat environment has changed, their preparations have evolved as well."

Some election workers are re-imagining their office's physical security. They are building new and more secure facilities and adding technology such as surveillance equipment and panic buttons. But others are opting to leave the field altogether.

Since the 2020 presidential election, 60% of chief local election officials in the Western half of the U.S. (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) have left their jobs, according to Issue One, an advocacy group focused on strengthening democracy.

Michael Beckel, the group's research director, worries the exodus could lead to workers who make more errors and are less resilient to public or political pressures.

"This is a five-alarm fire," he said. "It's a huge loss of institutional knowledge."

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence.

 

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