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State legislatures rush to implement laws to protect poll workers ahead of midterms

The democratic process hasn’t been the same since 2020, and if a rising anti-democratic movement in America gets its way, we may never go back. But in the wake of unprecedented attacks on those who run our elections, state lawmakers have rushed to implement new laws ahead of the midterms that would give them more protection.

State legislatures in Colorado, Maine, Vermont and California passed laws this year that make it a crime to threaten or harass poll workers, or make it easier to prosecute those who do. In other states, like Wisconsintop law enforcement officials are examining their own strategies for prosecuting such threats, while candidates to oversee elections in states like Snowfall they have promised to push through similar legislation if they take office.

Since former President Donald Trump pushed the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, poll workers across the country have faced an onslaught of targeted harassment for their work.

“There has been a really alarming increase in harassment against election workers and officials,” Gowri Ramachandran, senior adviser for the Brennan Center’s Democracy program, told TPM.

A Brennan Center poll March found that one in six election officials had been threatened for their work. Seventy-seven percent of respondents say these threats have increased in recent years.

At times, the intimidation has gone as far as death threats. FEC United, a far-right extremist group based in Colorado, held a meeting about alleged voter fraud in February; that night, a self-proclaimed election denier reclaimed have evidence that Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold engaged in criminal electoral conduct. (He did not do it.)

“You know, if you’re involved in voter fraud, then you deserve to be hanged,” he said afterward to an applauding audience.

Since then, Secretary Griswold has received a barrage of violent threats, prompting her to seek help from the Colorado State Patrol.

“I got an increase in threats over the last year, year and a half because of the Big Lie,” he told TPM. “In fact, two people have been arrested, one prosecuted for threatening my life for being Secretary of State.”

The harassment became so severe that Secretary Griswold had to dip into her own funds to obtain additional security coverage to supplement what the Colorado State Patrol could provide. “Starting in February, we hired private security,” she said.

Since then, the state legislature has passed the Colorado Election Officials Protection Actto protect poll workers who have suffered threats related to the Big Lie as a result.

Bullying campaigns have led lawmakers to pass similar bills in states that include Oregon, Vermont other California, where the threats have been persistent and ruthless. In one example considered by the Oregon legislature, an administrator in Medford, Oregon, told Stateline that a threatening message was painted in large white letters in a parking lot outside his office weeks after the 2020 election: “Voting doesn’t work. Next time bullets.”

Maine election offices saw high turnover rates in the wake of the 2020 election. The state legislature passed a invoice in April that added threatening an election official to the state criminal code and required the secretary of state to report threats directed at public officials to a legislative committee.

“No local election official should have to worry about violent threats just to do their job,” Rep. Bruce White (D-Waterville), who introduced the bill, told TPM.

Ramachandran of the Brennan Center has spoken with many poll workers who have faced threats since the Big Lie began to spread. In February 2021, she tried before the Oregon State Assembly on the need for more comprehensive legislation to protect poll workers.

“The threats got so bad in the weeks leading up to and after Election Day that several officials had to temporarily leave their homes, fearing for their safety,” it proved. “Others required 24-hour police surveillance.”

He noted that the threats have expanded to target the families of poll workers, with many having had to do what Griswold did: put up their own funds for additional security.

“It’s really heartbreaking to hear these stories,” Ramachandran told TPM. “It’s really terrible that the people who provide a public service to all of us have to pay out of their own pocket just to be safe. It’s unacceptable, frankly.”

The federal government has sought to provide additional protections for poll workers: the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), for example, has issued guidance on how poll workers can beef up their security and provided free physical security assessments for offices where officials work.

But Ramachandran told TPM that these measures are not enough. “Unfortunately, while providing those evaluations, several election offices discovered that they don’t have the money to really implement all of the recommendations that CISA gives them,” he explained. “Some financial help from the federal government could be really helpful.”

“I think we’re seeing a further destabilization of American elections,” said Secretary Griswold. “I hope the violent rhetoric stops soon, but maybe it won’t.”


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