Democrats push to shield election workers from violent threats  

A voter has his photo taken prior to voting early at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Va., on Friday, September 17, 2021.
Greg Nash

Democrats on Capitol Hill are renewing calls for legislation that would stiffen criminal penalties against those who threaten election administrators after unprecedented harassment aimed at workers during last year’s presidential contest.

More than a dozen Democratic lawmakers, including from the key battleground states of Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are pushing the proposals, with some lawmakers warning that violence could erupt during upcoming elections without enhanced protections.

“I hope that it does not come to that,” said Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) of the prospect of violence against election workers. “But unless we do something about it, that’s the trendline. We saw what happened at the United States Capitol when no one took the proper steps to prevent that.” 

Nearly 1 in 6 local 2020 election workers received threats of violence, and almost 1 in 3 said they felt unsafe because of their job, according to an April survey by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Some had their homes broken into, others fled with their families into hiding and some faced armed crowds outside their workplaces and homes. And now, more than 10 months after Election Day, threats persist.

Many experts regard the administration of the 2020 election — its transparency, the historic turnout levels amid a pandemic, the fully verified results — as nothing short of heroic, and note with bitter irony that the workers who carried it out were repaid with harassment.

But despite the prevalence of such threats, a recent investigation by Reuters found that state authorities have done very little to hold accountable the perpetrators of violent threats against election workers. The report uncovered only a single case that’s being prosecuted federally. 

Democrats who spoke to The Hill tended to agree on the lackluster degree of accountability for perpetrators so far.

“The threats and intimidation targeting election officials are nothing short of un-American, and the response to date has been inadequate,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.). “No one should be subject to this type of harassment at their workplace — especially when their job is to uphold the democratic process our nation is built on.”

One of the main legislative proposals under discussion is the Preventing Election Subversion Act of 2021, which is sponsored by each of the lawmakers who spoke to The Hill for this article. The bill would make it a federal crime for any person to carry out or attempt to intimidate, threaten, coerce or harass an election worker.

“We must recognize that election subversion and voter suppression are two sides of the same coin,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who introduced the measure, which he described as critical for “protecting the independence and safety of our local election officials and ensuring that elections are free and fair.” 

Although the bill has bicameral support, with Senate Democrats backing an identical bill in the upper chamber, no Republicans have currently signed on.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is backing the Senate version of the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). She has also introduced a separate measure last month called the Protecting Election Administration from Interference Act that would also specifically address the issue.

“We need to respond to these threats head on to protect those who are on the frontlines defending our democracy,” Klobuchar said. “This legislation is key to fighting back against attempts to undermine our elections and ensuring our democracy works for every American.”

Threats of violence are also seen as a major contributor to the ongoing higher-than-normal attrition rate among election workers, a phenomenon some experts have likened to a “mass exodus.” 

Although no central database tracks departures among the nation’s estimated 8,000 local election workers, one expert previously told The Hill that there is now a “perfect storm” of low morale and high turnover.

At the same time, many of these formerly nonpartisan roles are being filled by pro-Trump partisans who endorse his lie about the election being stolen. In light of these dynamics, some lawmakers said it’s all the more urgent to provide additional legal protections for election workers. 

An aide to Klobuchar pointed to another new bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, which has backing from moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who opposes nixing the filibuster to pass more sweeping election reform measures. In addition to enhanced election-worker protections, the measure would create a federal program to recruit and train a new generation of nonpartisan election workers. 

With 2022 fast approaching, the prospect of having the additional protections in place ahead of the next year’s midterms is running out.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who was on the House floor during the Jan. 6 insurrection and believed his life was in peril, said Congress is duty-bound to shield American election workers.

“I refuse to leave our nation’s courageous election workers in danger of harassment, intimidation, threats and violence,” he said. “Too many election administrators have already been braving these threats for months. We owe it to these public servants to pass the Preventing Election Subversion Act as soon as we can.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar election workers Joe Manchin John Sarbanes Mary Gay Scanlon Raphael Warnock Wisconsin
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