US faces election worker shortage ahead of midterms due to rise in threats

Greg Nash
Voters register to vote same day during the presidential primary at the Parker-Varney School in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

Officials warn the U.S. is facing a shortage of election workers ahead of the November midterms due to a rise in threats against those performing such jobs that experts link to false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

In an interview last month, Kim Wyman, senior election security lead at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said because of those threats 1 in 3 elections officials and poll workers have quit their positions over fears for their safety, and state officials are having a hard time hiring for such positions.

Experts attribute this problem to inflammatory rhetoric stemming from unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and elections officials were complicit.

“Our elections have become very contentious,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

Jaffer said the country is witnessing a situation where conflict between political parties is now affecting the work of election workers, many of whom are retirees volunteering their time to count votes.

“Instead of respecting that civic duty, now people are taking out their frustrations and anger in politics on these election workers,” Jaffer said. “And that’s a real problem.”

Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice published a survey on the threats local election officials are facing.

The poll found that 1 in 6 election officials reported being threatened because of their job, and 77 percent of respondents said they felt such threats have increased in recent years.

Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Brennan Center’s elections and government program, said these threats can range from verbal abuse and online harassment on social media to death threats via the phone or by mail. He added that in some cases election workers have had their homes invaded and cars damaged.

The survey also found that 20 percent of election officials planned to leave their job before the 2024 election, with one-third of that group “citing political leaders’ attacks on a system they know is fair and honest as one of their top reasons for leaving.”

Another two-thirds of election officials surveyed reported being concerned about politicians attempting to interfere in how they perform their jobs in future elections. 

Norden added that the exodus is also partly due to election workers feeling there’s a lack of policy response from the government against the threats they’re facing.

The Brennan Center’s survey found that nearly 80 percent of election officials felt the federal government was either doing nothing or not doing enough to address the issue. 

“That’s a big problem,” Norden said.

“One thing that we can do is to make sure that people who are working in elections feel supported and I don’t think we’ve been doing a good job at that at either the federal or state level for the most part,” he added.

Federal authorities have taken some action on the issue: The Justice Department last year created a special task force to combat the rising threats against election workers, which the task force’s leader, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, called a “threat to democracy” in a statement announcing the program. 

In August, the task force briefed hundreds of election workers and officials on its work, reporting that it had reviewed over 1,000 reported threats and found that 11 percent of them merited federal criminal investigation. Election workers working in closely contested states were more likely to receive threats, it reported, with 58 percent of potentially criminal threats coming in states where the results of the 2020 election were challenged through lawsuits, recounts and audits, such as Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The task force said it had charged four federal cases over such threats and joined one more, adding that multiple state prosecutions had also been carried out.

Some state and federal lawmakers have also recently taken steps to address the issue by introducing and passing legislation aimed at protecting workers against threats.

In May, Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) signed two bills into law that are intended to fight against insider threats and protect election workers from physical threats and online harassment. One of the laws would make it a crime to threaten election workers or publish their personal information online. 

“We want to make sure that every vote is accurately counted,” Polis said. “And we also want to make sure that those that oversee elections themselves don’t have to worry about their physical safety.”

California, Maine, Oregon and Vermont have also recently passed their own laws shielding election workers from threats and harassment.

This month, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced similar legislation to address the rising threats against election workers. 

The bill, titled the Election Worker Protection Act, would provide states with resources to recruit and train election workers and also protect them from intimidation and threats. The legislation would also make it a federal crime to threaten, intimidate or coerce election workers. 

“Election workers are facing a barrage of threats from those seeking to undermine our democracy,” Klobuchar said in a statement. 

“We need to respond to these threats head on and make sure that election workers are able to do their jobs,” she added. 

Prior to former President Trump entering the political stage in 2015, Norden said that there were some candidates who would occasionally make unfounded claims of voter fraud, but they wouldn’t gain traction the way they did during the 2020 presidential election. 

“It has become much more common now and it has not been nearly as widely condemned as it needs to be to tamp that down,” Norden said. 

Norden explained that it’s always been the case that certain people will doubt votes were counted accurately, especially when their preferred candidate loses. 

“That’s not new because of Trump,” Norden said. 

“What is new because of Trump is that never before have we had a presidential candidate, well a sitting president, refuse to concede after the election is over and all legal avenues have been exhausted,” he added.

Jaffer added that he wouldn’t solely blame Trump for the country’s polarization but said the former president’s rhetoric and tone, and the response to it from others, has certainly made the situation worse.

“Trump is a symptom of a larger problem that we’ve been seeing for many years, which is an increased polarization of both parties to their extremes,” Jaffer said.

Norden also provided a few suggestions on how to deal with threats against election workers. First, he said there should be more prosecution against individuals making such threats. He also said the federal government should provide additional grants to state and local governments for safety training.

Lastly, he said there’s a need for more and better security for election buildings, including through the installation of camera surveillance, panic alarm systems and bulletproof election offices. 

Norden added that although a minority of Americans believe widespread voter fraud took place during the 2020 election, they’re still causing great damage and negatively impacting many people, including election workers. 

“It’s going to be extremely hard to sustain free and fair elections if a segment of the country refuses to accept when their favorite candidate loses and blames the people who are supposed to be counting votes,” Norden said.

“That’s their job … [and] if the public can’t accept that then we’re not going to have a democratic system much longer,” he added.

Tags 2022 midterm elections election workers

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