Local Election Officials Feel the Heat—And What Legislators Can Do About It
It’s no surprise that legislators on both sides of the aisle receive hate mail, social media harassment and threats. All elected officials are targets from time to time. It’s not ok, yet it’s hard to stop.
Now, local election officials—the people who administer elections—are targets, too. First, who are these people? Then, what’s up with harassment?
Election officials are the more than 8,000 government employees who run elections (along with more than 100,000 poll workers). Metaphorically, they’re the face of democracy. Practically, they’re responsible for answering voter questions; testing, deploying and storing election equipment; recruiting and training poll workers; finding polling locations; providing accurate public information; protecting against cybersecurity threats; and more.
Exactly what each local election official does varies state by state, and some may have other duties as well, such as maintaining land records or running the county motor vehicle departments. The common mission, though, is to run elections fairly and count votes accurately. For more on the role of local election officials, especially during the 2020 election, check out the resources at the bottom.
Election Officials in the News
In general, election officials prefer that good voter information—such as when, where and how to vote—be the object of attention, rather than the official themselves. When the focus shifts to the individual election official, it often comes in two not-so-appealing flavors: misdeeds and harassment.
While rare, allegations of malfeasance do make headlines. Examples from this cycle:
- In Colorado, a lawsuit filed by the secretary of state alleges the Mesa County clerk and recorder “allowed an unauthorized individual to participate in the secure process for installing an update to the county’s electronic voting system, leading to the public disclosure of state-guarded passwords needed to access the equipment.”
- In Philadelphia, a former election official has been charged with four counts of voter fraud, stemming from how absentee ballots were handled between 2015 and 2019.
- In Detroit, state Attorney General Dana Nessel charged three women with election fraud in the 2020 election. Nessel says, “These cases highlight the scrutiny applications and ballots undergo throughout the election process, as well as the thorough investigative process that ensues when instances of attempted fraud are suspected."
As for threats, harassment and intimidation, those unfortunately have become less rare. In June 2021, the California Voter Foundation (CVF) released a report, Documenting and Addressing Harassment of Election Officials. “While many have put the last election in the rearview mirror, election officials are still being attacked,” said Kim Alexander, CVF’s president and founder. In fact, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election officials reported feeling unsafe and one in six reported being threatened due to their job during the 2020 election. The Stanford Internet Observatory’s 2020 Elections Oral History Project shows how “narrative after bad-faith narrative took aim at election officials, often culminating in months of personal threats against their lives and the lives of their family members,” and presents a few frontline workers’ stories.
Experts across the political spectrum have addressed this issue, including Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, headliners in the election law world and former co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, with Bauer on the left and Ginsberg on the right. Along with veteran election attorney David Becker, they launched the Election Official Legal Defense Network as part of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. The network will connect pro bono attorneys to election officials who request assistance, regardless of political affiliation, state or county location. The Department of Justice, too, has addressed the issue, highlighting the problem in a memo to federal prosecutors and the FBI, Guidance Regarding Threats Against Election Workers.
And harassment isn’t the end of the story. “These attacks are driving a disturbingly high number of our democracy’s frontline workers to leave their positions,” said Alexander. “In California, 15% of election officials have already resigned and more may follow.” According to a Reed College survey of 850 election officials, 35% are eligible to retire before 2024, and of those 45% indicated they plan to do so—reducing today’s experienced local election officials by 16%.
What’s this have to do with legislators? They set policy for all things related to elections, and that includes the role and duties of local election officials.
In 2015 there were six enactments in five states relating to local election officials; each odd-numbered year since then, both numbers have increased. This year, the nation has seen 42 enactments in 21 states. Some of these bills addressed election officials only tangentially, and a dozen explicitly prohibit election officials from using donations from outside groups, but even with those caveats, the trend is clear.
Only one of the 2021 introductions addresses harassment directly: Washington SB 5148. If enacted, the bill would explicitly include election officials in the state’s general law on harassment. It passed the Senate and is carried over to next year.
As for enactments, Kansas HB 2183 and Louisiana HB 581 would make it a crime to impersonate an election official or make false election information appear to originate from an official source. Overall, though, this year’s enactments primarily addressed training, uniformity, roles and responsibilities, and—new this year—penalties and fines for election officials. Read on for a sampling of these trends or find the whole list in NCSL’s election legislation database.
Training. Over time, states have adopted more training requirements for election officials, and that trend accelerated this year:
- Arizona HB 2363 allows a city or town to train its own employees to work on elections if the program is approved by the secretary of state.
- Louisiana HB 139 requires annual training for members of local boards of election supervisors. The training must be prepared by the secretary of state and approved by the attorney general.
- Louisiana HB 214 requires registrars of voters appointed to complete orientation and training prepared by the secretary of state and the Registrar of Voters Association and approved by the attorney general.
- New York AB 4257 requires that each local board of elections annually provide online and in-person training of election inspectors, poll clerks and election coordinators.
- Texas SB 231 requires the secretary of state to provide a standardized training program and materials for county election officers in the same manner as it provides programs for election judges and clerks.
Uniformity. If state law is silent on a given issue, local election officials will have to make decisions on their own, which leads to variation in interpretation. One example: In 2020, only eight states had laws that governed the use of drop boxes for the return of voted absentee/mail ballots. That year many local jurisdictions deployed drop boxes because so many voters were asking for absentee ballots. This year, at least nine states enacted laws to standardize the use of drop boxes. Examples include Florida SB 90 and Maryland HB 1048. More uniform laws can help eliminate confusion caused by differing interpretations across a state.
Roles and responsibilities. Legislatures have the power to define the role of election officials, and several enactments this year sought to clarify what local election officials can and can’t do:
- Arkansas SB 557 allows a county board of election commissioners to delegate supervision of election officials.
- Arizona HB 2794 prohibits an officer or agent of the state from modifying any deadline, submittal date, filing date or other election-related date provided in statute, except when prescribed by a court.
- New Jersey SB 2973 permits certain counties to have a deputy superintendent of elections as well as a superintendent of elections. The two officials cannot be of the same party.
- Tennessee HB 722 prohibits a county election commissioner from qualifying as a candidate for public office and being a member of the commission.
- Virginia SB 1281 removes the requirement that the general registrar of a locality be a resident of that locality or an adjacent locality.
Penalties. This category has received extensive media attention this year. Firing an official who doesn’t follow state law has always been an option, and now, a handful of GOP-led states have gotten more specific:
- Arkansas HB 1803 gives the State Board of Elections additional authority when alleged violations of election laws take place, including instituting corrective actions.
- Arkansas SB 498 requires any written complaint concerning any election law violation or irregularity be sent by the county board of election commissioners to the State Board of Election Commissioners for evaluation.
- Georgia SB 202 allows the State Election Board to suspend county or municipal election superintendents and appoint a temporary superintendent, following a performance review board investigation.
- Iowa SB 413 creates penalties for election officials who willfully fail to perform their duties.
- Texas SB 1 establishes consequences for any voter registrar who isn’t in compliance with state law, including a civil penalty for a third violation.
- Texas HB 574 creates felony offenses for anyone who knowingly tries to count votes the person knows are invalid or alter a report to include votes the person knows are invalid, and for anyone who refuses to count votes the person knows are valid.
- Texas SB 1113 allows the secretary of state to withhold funds if a registrar fails in their duties.
- Texas HB 1622 creates a formal complaint process for clerks who fail to adhere to early voting roster maintenance and availability requirements.
As legislators work to create and fine-tune laws to ensure that those running elections have the training and guidance necessary to do so, they might find it useful to build relationships with local election officials. First, it’s great to be on a first-name basis in case questions come up during an election. Second, local election officials can explain the nuts and bolts of how ballots are processed, what the security measures are and more, which may lead to more confidence in the process for community leaders, including legislators. Third, once the connection is made, local election officials may be beneficial consultants when legislators have a bill under consideration.
After all, this year has shown that legislators and local election officials have much in common—both as targets of harassment and as essential purveyors of accurate election information.
That’s the number of attendees registered for this year’s NCSL Legislative Summit in Tampa, Fla. The elections and redistricting team have a stellar line-up of sessions, including two which will be livestreamed for all to see (more on that here). If you’re attending, be sure to check out:
- 11/3, 10:30 a.m.–11:30 a.m. ET: How Did 2020 Change the Election Integrity Landscape?
- 11/3, 11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m. ET: Election Lessons from 2020: Absentee/Mail Voting
- 11/3, 2 p.m.–3:15 p.m. ET: What Election Policymakers Wish Election Officials Knew — and Vice Versa (streamed)
- 11/3, 3:30 p.m.–5 p.m. ET: Redistricting: A History of Innovation
- 11/4, 1 p.m.–2 p.m. ET: The Redistricting Road Map: Where Are We Now? (streamed)
- 11/4, 2:15 p.m.–3:45 p.m. ET: The Census: What’s Happened, What’s Next
- 11/4, 4 p.m.–5 p.m. ET: Five Favorite Ideas: Legislators Make Their Pitches
We couldn’t be more excited to connect with friends old and new. If you’re in Tampa, be sure to say hello!
A Q&A with Tennessee Senator Richard Briggs
This month we spoke with Tennessee Senator Richard Briggs (R). Since 2014, he has represented District 7, which includes part of Knox County in eastern Tennessee.
Tell me about your role as chair of the Senate State & Local Government Committee.
The lieutenant governor appointed me as chair because I had spent seven years as a Knox County Commissioner, and I bring that local government experience to the role.
It’s a busy committee. We see more bills than any other committee in the state senate. We handle everything from alcohol, the national guard and prisons to utilities, online gambling and elections since those issues all deal with how state and local governments work.
What have been your election priorities this year?
My priorities are to not have any voter suppression, especially not any that’s related to politics, and to ensure that our elections are conducted in a manner beyond reproach that the public can believe in. I want it to be as easy as possible for any citizen to vote, and this year we passed no laws that would inhibit them from registering or voting.
We defeated some bills that would’ve made elections more questionable such as adding drop boxes or mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters, but we maintained our liberal absentee voting laws—there are 14 reasons for people to vote absentee, including anyone over 60. We also added watermarks to absentee ballots, which will make them more difficult to counterfeit. (Editor's note: Tennessee SB 1315 requires watermarks and makes an exception for military and overseas voters.)
In terms of innovation, we’ve been gradually introducing vote centers. Tennessee has a very long early voting period, and in 2017, we started a pilot project that allows voters to go to any voting site in the county where they live. That program is popular and keeps expanding; last year, seven counties were part of it.
Are there any changes you’d like to see Tennessee make in the future or any concerns you’re still working on?
I think we’ve got a really good, reliable election system, so we should make some tweaks but there’s no need for big changes. For example, only about 35-40% of ballots in Tennessee have a paper backup. It’s up to the counties to purchase those machines, but some can’t and there’s not enough federal funds. So I’d like to see progress there.
There was also some concern about the Dominion voting machines that three counties use, but we ran the results back through a different machine and had 100% agreement. One of the small counties did a hand recount, too, and had 100% agreement. But we still have people watching national television, and there’s nothing you can do to satisfy them.
What aspect of Tennessee’s elections makes you the proudest?
I feel very confident that the results of our elections are accurate and that people in Tennessee can have confidence that when their vote is cast it will be counted and that the candidate who gets the most votes will win.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
News Worth Noting
Wisconsin Audit Offers 30 Recommendations
At the request of the Wisconsin Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau evaluated election administration issues raised after the 2020 election in the Badger State, and released its report Oct. 22. The report addressed whether the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and election clerks throughout the state complied with state laws, the use of electronic voting equipment and whether post-election audits were conducted in compliance with state law, and whether complaints filed with the WEC or with clerks were adequately addressed.
In the transmittal letter, the state auditor, Joe Chrisman, writes:
We reviewed the training that WEC is statutorily required to provide to municipal clerks, analyzed how WEC and clerks maintained the accuracy of voter registration records, reviewed guidance that WEC and its staff provided to clerks for handling absentee ballots and processing ballots, examined issues pertaining to electronic voting equipment and the statutorily required post-election audit that WEC conducted after the November 2020 General Election, assessed how WEC and its staff considered complaints, and examined the costs of the recount after the General Election.
Based on that detailed work, the bureau provided 30 recommendations for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to consider and 18 issues for legislative consideration. Representative Samantha Kerkman, co-chair of the Audit Committee, is quoted as saying the report will be used as a “blueprint” for the Legislature.
Idaho Recount Confirms Accuracy and Security of 2020 Election
Idaho’s chief deputy secretary of state reaffirmed the accuracy of the state’s 2020 election results, after doing manual recounts in three counties, which showed “only a roughly 0.1% margin of error across three counties.” The review was prompted by allegations challenging the integrity of the state’s processes. “While our team is always looking for possible vulnerabilities, this allegation was patently without merit from the first look. It takes hard work to build confidence in a state’s elections system, and careless accusations like this can cause tremendous harm. Doing nothing and saying nothing would have been like conceding its truth,” Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said in an Oct. 6 press release.
Ballot Folds at Fault for Miscount in New Hampshire
A bipartisan audit commissioned by the New Hampshire General Court found improperly folded ballots as the cause for discrepancies in election night returns and hand count totals in a contest for four state house seats According to the report, Windham, N.H., used a machine to fold ballots, resulting in some ballots with folds through the Democratic candidate’s name. When fed through the counting machine, these ballots were either not counted or a vote was wrongly tallied. Auditors and the secretary of state say the problem was likely limited to Windham, and recommended the town not fold ballots in the future or provide instructions to election officials on how to fold ballots properly.
2021 Ballot Measures Preview: Something for Everyone
Taxes, infrastructure and constitutional rights are just a few of this November’s ballot measure flavors. Voters in six states—Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington—will decide on 24 different measures, a sharp decrease from 124 ballot measures across 32 states last year. We break down each proposal on the ballot this fall and will be keeping an eye on which receive the green light from voters. For more, check out our statewide ballot measures database.
2021 Legislative Election Preview: A (Small) Year Like No Other
Two gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia are attracting the lion’s share of attention this November, along with contests in the New Jersey Senate, New Jersey Assembly and Virginia House of Delegates. While the 2021 elections may be small, many are watching Old Dominion—which has been blue, red and purple this century—as a bellwether for national politics. We catch you up on all you need to know.
The Carter Center Unveils New Report on Election Misinformation and Big Tech
The Carter Center’s timely report, “The Big Lie and Big Tech,” details the role of repeat offenders—entities known to regularly post misinformation on social media—during the 2020 election cycle. Using data from NewsGuard, the center analyzed over 2.93 million posts in 883 Facebook groups engaged in partisan political discourse and found repeat-offender content in 76% of all groups—and in 97% of right-leaning groups—between Aug. 17, 2020, and Jan. 20, 2021. The report outlines the reach and magnitude of repeat-offender content, and how social media platforms can blunt their impact in the future.
Drinking, Heckling, Shouting—and Voting?
We’ve said this before, but the way Americans vote has changed a lot over time. Perhaps more so than you think. This month, we want to highlight one of our favorite reads from 2016 about voting viva voce—with the living voice—in the post-colonial United States, when everyone knew your vote and the polling place featured ample whiskey and brawling.
From the NCSL Elections Team
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—Mandy Zoch, Wendy Underhill and Saige Draeger