After the 2020 U.S. presidential election, election officials faced an unprecedented level of threats to their safety and security.
Since 2020, state policymakers from both parties have confronted the harassment of election workers, including threats of violence, from a variety of angles, including by revising existing statutes and passing stand-alone protections.
A 2022 nationwide survey of local election officials showed that nearly a quarter of them experienced threats of violence, harassment or other instances of abuse as the result of their work. Now, after years of attacks, the profession is facing a new challenge: the loss of seasoned election administrators ahead of the 2024 general election.
“Although 2022 was generally positive, the embers of 2020 continue to smolder, and there is evidence to show that threats against public officials is a problem that is not slowing down.”
—Neal Kelley, Committee for Safe and Secure Elections
A separate survey of local election officials conducted in early 2023 estimates that nearly 1 in 5 officials serving in 2024 will be new in their role. “With the increased negative environment, election administrators are retiring early or leaving the profession, and the election community loses the core of its qualified and experienced officials,” notes U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner Donald Palmer, a Republican. “The election official departures are an acute state public service problem.”
Last year, the EAC commissioners voted unanimously to allow states to use federal Help America Vote Act funds to protect election officials after the Government Accountability Office ruled such usage permissible.
The Justice Department is also confronting violence against election workers. In 2021, the department launched a task force in partnership with the U.S. attorneys’ offices and the FBI to receive, evaluate and prosecute such offenses. One outcome of the group’s work: In December, the department announced an indictment of an Arizona man who left a series of threatening voicemails for an election official at the secretary of state’s office.
Strengthening the connection between election officials and law enforcement is a cornerstone of the work being done by the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, also known as CSSE, a bipartisan group including law enforcement leaders, election administrators and election security experts. The committee has created resources for election officials who have received threats and for members of law enforcement who are responding.
“Although 2022 was generally positive, the embers of 2020 continue to smolder, and there is evidence to show that threats against public officials is a problem that is not slowing down,” says Neal Kelley, a retired registrar and former law enforcement officer from Orange County, Calif., who is now the group’s chairman. “While CSSE does not take positions on specific legislation, our committee has worked with members of state legislatures nationwide to focus efforts on protecting election officials’ privacy, increasing penalties for threats, enhancing physical security and finding creative ways to increase funding.”
States Bolster Protections
One approach is to update who is covered by state address confidentiality programs, which shield from public access the voter registration information of people at risk of harm because of who they are or what they do for work. Survivors of intimate partner violence or those who work in the judicial system, including judges, prosecutors and corrections officers, commonly are covered. In 2022, two states, California and Oregon, expanded their confidentiality program definitions to cover election workers.
States are also revising their statutes to criminalize threats against election workers. In 2021, Arizona and Kansas made it illegal to impersonate an election official. Washington enhanced criminal penalties for harassment of election workers, placing them in the same protected category as judicial workers. In 2022, Vermont expanded its definition of “criminal threatening” to include offenses in polling locations and against election officials, making election-related harassment crimes easier to prosecute. This year, New Mexico and Oklahoma criminalized intimidation of state and municipal election workers.
Colorado and Maine went further, enacting laws with additional fixtures. In Colorado, it was an extension on doxxing protections for the immediate family members of election officials; in Maine, it was a de-escalation training requirement for election officials and annual reporting of election threats to the Legislature.
“This is not just a swing-state issue or a red-state, blue-state issue. Unfortunately, election officials all over the country have received threats and harassment against themselves, their families and their children,” says EAC Commissioner Ben Hovland, a Democrat.
“Protecting election officials is critical to the functioning of our democracy. State and local officials must feel safe doing their work, and state legislators can take significant steps to help.”
Saige Draeger is a policy associate in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.