Lawmakers in a few states are pushing for stronger safeguards for election officials, citing growing concerns about their safety in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
Threats against those in charge of elections, ranging from secretaries of state to county clerks and even poll workers, skyrocketed after former President Donald Trump and his allies spread false information about the presidential election’s outcome. “Corrupt secretaries will all hang when the stolen election is revealed,” is just one example of the venom that has been spread via social media, emails, and phone calls.
Election workers have faced threats even in Vermont, where the outcome was not contested. In 2020, a caller to the secretary of state’s office stated that a firing squad would target “all you cheating (vulgarity),” and that “a lot of people will be executed.”
To counter the threats, lawmakers in Vermont and several other states, including Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, and Washington, all of which have Democratic-controlled legislatures, have introduced bills. Much of the legislation would impose or increase criminal penalties for threats and, in Illinois, assaults on election workers.
More legislation is possible, as election officials warn that the ongoing attacks endanger democracy and that many election workers have resigned or are considering resigning as a result of the abuse they have faced since the 2020 election.
Last April, the Brennan Center commissioned a survey of local election officials, and one in three said they felt unsafe because of their job, and one in six said they had been threatened. Trump has continued to promote his false claims that the election was stolen from him, despite the lack of evidence of widespread fraud required to call the outcome into question, which President Joe Biden won by more than 7 million votes.
One bill being considered in Vermont would broaden the definition of criminal threatening in order to make it easier to prosecute such acts. Another proposal would increase the penalty for criminally threatening election officials, public employees, and public servants.
Condos described how the threatening calls had scared one staffer to the point where he was afraid to leave work and walk to his vehicle during a recent legislative committee hearing. He eventually took time off and sought counseling for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the days following the 2020 election, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, left her home for several weeks as a precautionary measure due to security concerns. A Democrat-sponsored bill introduced last month broadens the felony crime of intimidation to include acts against the secretary of state’s employees and agents, county clerks, and municipal clerks.
Supporters of the legislation argue that broadening protections to include all election office employees is critical because threats have not been limited to top-level staff.
In Fulton County, Georgia, two election office workers, one of whom was a temporary employee, sued a conservative website in December, accusing it of spreading false information about them. According to their lawsuit, the false claims resulted in a “deluge of intimidation, harassment, and threats, forcing them to change their phone numbers, delete their online accounts, and fear for their physical safety.”
In the weeks after the election, a top Georgia elections official condemned the barrage of threats and urged Trump to rein in his supporters. At the time, Trump was claiming “massive voter fraud” in the state, and people were driving in caravans past the home of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and sending sexually explicit threats to Raffensperger’s wife.
An election threats task force within the United States Department of Justice has reviewed more than 850 reports of threats to election officials, according to Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite. Two people have been charged with federal crimes for threatening election workers, including a Texas man who threatened to kill Georgia government officials after the 2020 election. Polite also stated that the department has dozens of open investigations.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, stated that harassers must be prosecuted.