Signage at an early voting center on Sept. 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
State and local election officials face threats and intimidation, driving experienced workers out of the profession, a panel of election officials told a U.S. Senate committee this week.
Conspiracy theories have fueled a more hostile environment for election workers, which has led many to quit, creating more challenges for the inexperienced new leaders, the top election officials from two battleground states testified at a U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on threats to election administration.
Democratic and Republican election workers have been the targets of “threats and abusive conduct,” Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said.
Senators stressed the bipartisan nature of the issue and neither members of the committee nor the election administrator witnesses – which included state officials from Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nebraska and the Rutherford County, Tennessee, administrator of elections — mentioned former President Donald Trump or his unfounded attempts to discredit the 2020 election results that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Congress must “continue the federal funding and to make clear this is a bipartisan, nonpartisan piece of the work that we do,” Klobuchar said.
“In recent years, election officials have faced both cybersecurity threats and physical threats,” the panel’s ranking Republican, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, said. “They have struggled to retain experienced poll workers and to recruit and train new poll workers.”
Retention ‘one of the biggest challenges’
Threats against election workers and related issues have worsened since 2020, senators and witnesses said.
Twelve of Arizona’s 15 counties lost their chief election official in the last three years, Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, told the committee.
“As a former county recorder myself, I can attest that the pre-2020 world for election administrators is gone,” he said. “We don’t feel safe in our work because of the harassment and threats that are based in lies.”
He urged action to combat the misinformation that has led to distrust of election officials, calling it a “threat to American democracy.”
“Many veteran Arizona officials from both political parties … have left the profession for the sake of their own physical, mental and emotional health and that of their families,” Fontes said. “The cost of persistent misrepresentations about the integrity of our elections is high, but the cost of inaction against those threats is higher.”
More than 50 top local officials resigned over the same period in Pennsylvania, Klobuchar said. The entire staff of the election officials in Buckingham County, Virginia, left earlier this year, she added.
Election workers saw new levels of hostility after 2020, Elizabeth Howard, a researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive voting rights nonprofit, testified.
That environment has led many experienced administrators to leave the profession, election administrators said.
Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt, a Republican and the state’s highest ranking election official, described a vicious cycle. Experienced elections officials’ resignations left less experienced workers in charge.
“They’re more likely to make errors and make errors in an environment where everything is perceived as being intentional and malicious and seeking to change the outcome of the election,” he said.
Schmidt said the difficulty in retaining election workers and recruiting new ones is “one of the biggest challenges” in running elections.
But the environment since Trump pushed unfounded theories that his reelection loss in 2020 was illegitimate made that much more difficult.
“It almost defies common sense that we have people who want to get into these jobs,” Fontes said.
Red state officials report fewer issues
Nebraska Deputy Secretary of State Wayne J. Bena, who serves in an unelected position under an elected Republican, did not mention threats or intimidation of election workers in his state, but defended their work. A manual audit revealed only 11 discrepancies in nearly 50,000 ballots, he said.
“That’s an error rate of 23,000th of 1%,” he said. “This post-election audit provided valuable data in each county to verify the accuracy of our ballot counting equipment. Let me be clear: This expanded audit was not easy, but it provides another example of how our election officials go above and beyond to ensure the utmost integrity in our elections.”
J. Alan Farley, who oversees a county election commission in Rutherford County, Tennessee, said his workers have not experienced physical threats and the issue has not affected his office’s recruitment efforts.
At a recent event for about 250 election workers to discuss the 2024 presidential cycle, some who worked the 2020 and 2022 elections were “eager to return,” he said.
“Threats to election officials were never mentioned” during the event, he said.
But, Farley said, county elections officials in Tennessee did face cybersecurity challenges and could use federal funding to address them, he said.
“Many counties in the state of Tennessee do not have adequate funding for county IT departments,” he said.
Conspiracy theories feed difficult environment
But the election administrators from the states with more contested elections said threats have increased in recent years, fueled largely by the types of unfounded conspiracy theories that Trump espoused.
Administrators should take seriously the legitimate threats to election integrity, which is a real issue, Schmidt, whom Trump personally attacked for his work overseeing Philadelphia’s 2020 election results, said.
But conspiracy theorists who claim to be concerned with election integrity often promote wildly absurd ideas, he said, adding that such claims were particularly numerous about Philadelphia in the 2020 cycle.
“I can’t begin to share the number in Philadelphia that we experienced in 2020 that if it were a movie you’d walk out — it’s just so dumb,” Schmidt said. “But a lot of people believe it.”
Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff said conspiracy theories led to 65,000 voter registration challenges in just eight counties in his state in the leadup to the 2022 midterms. The challenges were “overwhelmingly frivolous” and targeted Black voters, Ossoff said.
Fontes urged a more aggressive posture to fight misinformation.
“I think we need to be very, very much more robust in attacking the illegitimate attacks for what they are: conspiracy theories and lies designed to undermine our democracy,” Fontes said.
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