‘We need your help’: Election officials ask Congress to better address harassment ahead of midterms

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Protecting Our Democracy's Frontline Workers" on August 3.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Protecting Our Democracy's Frontline Workers" on August 3. BILL CLARK/CQ-ROLL CALL, INC VIA GETTY IMAGES

Women make up the overwhelming majority of the election workforce, and many are facing threats in the wake of lies spread about the integrity of the 2020 election.

Election officials from several battleground states asked members of Congress on Wednesday to better address harassment and threats of violence against election workers, a workforce dominated by women. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said during a Senate Judiciary hearing that workers are facing “an unprecedented wave of continuous unrelenting harassment and threats.” 

“Enduring these threats creates a near-constant strain of anxiety and stress on our work,” the Democrat said. “The status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable.”

Benson added: “I'm here today because we need your help. We cannot have a secure democracy if we do not protect the security of the people who administer our elections.”

Election officials from both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as nonpartisan officials, testified at the hearing on election workers, a workforce that has received more attention after former President Donald Trump lied about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. As Trump considers another run for office in 2024, he has repeated unfounded claims about election security that election administrators say has made their work more difficult.

The hearing also marked the first time the Department of Justice updated lawmakers on reported threats against election workers following the creation last year of a specialized group.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, also a Democrat, said that after the 2020 election, she had her personal information shared online and had to leave her home for weeks under state police protection.

“For the election officials and volunteer poll workers that our elections depend on, I fear that threats and harassment will cause them so much stress and uncertainty that they will simply give up the work,” she said.

Kenneth A. Polite Jr., assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s criminal division, said the task force on election threats in the past year had reviewed more than 1,000 contacts that were reported as “harassing or offensive” by the election community.

Of the 1,000 contacts, a little over 100 met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation. The task force has prosecuted five defendants, which Polite described as cases involving “serious threats of unlawful violence.” One case involves a Texas man accused of threatening election workers in Georgia, in part through a Craigslist ad. Prosecutors allege the man said it was “time to kill” an official. In another, a Massachusetts man has been accused of threatening to blow up Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who oversaw the 2020 election in her state and is now running for governor. 

“Although the vast majority of communications directed at election workers, offensive though they may be, will not constitute true threats subject to federal criminal prosecution due to the robust protections afforded to political speech by the First Amendment, we are committed to following the facts and the law,” he said.

The election workforce is nearly 80 percent women, according to one survey, and ahead of the midterm elections, election workers around the country have said they’re facing cases of harassment and threats of violence. Many, from both major political parties, say they’ve had to take extra steps to protect themselves and their families. According to a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 3 in 4 local election officials feel that threats against local election officials have increased in recent years.

Among the people who have spoken out are Wandrea "Shaye" Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, both election workers in Georgia who testified in June about the harassment and threats they faced after the 2020 election.

Polite said the task force is coordinating with state and local officials to make sure any threats or harassment are reported as quickly as possible to the Department of Justice. He added that while the task force leans on enforcement as a tool, it is also promoting grant funding to help election officials with security measures.

“I want to assure you that our attention to ensuring the safety and security of those in the election community will not wane,” he said. “And through these collective efforts, we hope to continue to mitigate and deter threats.”

The hearing took place while other members of Congress met to discuss plans to update the Electoral Count Act that spells out transition of power rules that voting experts say are needed to avoid ambiguity that played out in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the vice president’s role in certifying elections. Benson praised lawmakers for working on that legislation.

“But that is not enough. Imposing stronger penalties on those who would threaten or harm anyone involved in election administration is an important step,” she said. She also asked that election officials receive the same protections for personal information that federal judges have access to. “The bottom line is we need you to act because many states like Michigan are failing to do what is necessary to protect us.”

Several Republican senators on the committee questioned the need for a task force to investigate threats against election workers, focusing instead on reported threats against so-called crisis pregnancy centers and protests at the homes of U.S. Supreme Court justices. Polite defended the department’s work in investigating related incidents.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, chair of the committee, criticized Republicans for the shift away from election workers during the hearing. A few guests invited by Republicans spoke instead about a general rise in crime in parts of the country.

“There might be people who watch this hearing and can't figure out what the hell is going on here. Why won't any Republican witness or senator talk about the issue that was the subject matter of this hearing?” Durbin said. “Why don't they get into the reality of the threats that county clerks and election officials are facing across the United States? And the answer is very clear and simple and obvious. Because it means saying that the Big Lie is a lie.” 

Amy Cohen is the executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors, whose membership includes election officials from around the country. She spoke of the need for more consistent and committed funding for election administration. Cohen recently helped organize a conference of election workers in Wisconsin that required heightened security measures.

“Until recently this was not a field you went into thinking it could cost you your life, and now that it is, we need a whole-of-government response to ensure the safety of our community,” she said.

Matt Crane, a Republican and executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, testified that several election officials in the state had reported threats.

“These emerging and pervasive threats to election workers and the clerks that oversee that work are falling the heaviest on Republican clerks right now,” he said. “Many, if not all of them have seen an uptick in everything from concerning emails to actual physical threats.”

Toulouse Oliver, who is up for reelection, said America won’t have a democracy without committed election workers returning year after year.

“We are on the verge of not having that process anymore because we are not going to have enough committed citizen individuals if these threats and the Big Lie that is driving them continues,” she said.  

Benson, who is also up for reelection this year and will face a Republican candidate who claims the 2020 election was rigged, said she met with election workers who helped run Michigan’s primary this week. She said while worker threats and the loss of institutional history are real, she’s seeing thousands of new volunteers who want to serve as election workers.

“I have a lot of hope, actually, that through this moment, if citizens observe these challenges, and simply seek out the truth and step up with us to serve and protect our democracy, we can actually emerge from this moment with a stronger, healthier, more robust democracy than ever before,” Benson said. “But that ultimately will be determined by the citizens of our country itself, who will determine whether to stand with us in this moment in furtherance of the truth and our democracy or not.”

Originally published by The 19th

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