Ahead of 2024, we must protect election workers nationwide. Our democracy depends on it.
Every week, we continue to see news about the 2020 election and the shocking, seditious efforts to tear down our democracy that followed. Federal and state criminal indictments for conspiracies to overturn the election. Sentencing of extremist leaders of the Jan. 6 riots. Rudy Giuliani’s liability for defamation and infliction of emotional distress against two Georgia election workers.
Accountability for these past actions is critically important. But as these stories dominate the news cycle again and again, it is important not to lose sight of one of the unconscionable continuing consequences — the increase in hostility toward our nation’s election officials, and the impact it has on our democracy.
Since 2020, a shocking number of election officials nationwide, many beaten down by harassment, threats, interference in their jobs and lack of support, have left and continue to leave the field at an alarming rate. Rather than gradually declining in the years since 2020, the hostility, threats and intimidation of election workers has continued, and it impacts election officials — and voters — in every state, and in every party.
Election workers don’t leave these jobs lightly — they are some of the most fiercely committed and staunch public servants there are. But they are also understaffed and underpaid, and when you add in threats, intimidation and hostility, it begins to take its toll.
Election administrator Heider Garcia of Tarrant County, Texas, experienced years of threats and racist messages following 2020, but it wasn’t until April 2023 that he resigned. In 2023, in Buckingham County, Va., threats and harassment caused the entire election office to quit, and not even a month later, the county fired the new registrar. Election directors in 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties have resigned or retired since 2020 — many of them due to intimidation and hostility.
As Pennsylvania secretary of State in 2020, I, along with my husband, stayed in undisclosed locations for some time as a result of threats following the November election, and I was very grateful for law enforcement and others who provided protection. Many of us in similar positions were hoping against hope as we looked to each ensuing official action — final court decisions, the meeting of the Electoral College, audits, recounts and, of course, Jan. 6 and then Inauguration Day — that as facts were proven and the rule of law was upheld, the threats and efforts to tear down our democracy would end.
Unfortunately, none of this has stopped the flood of political violence.
Newer candidates continue to spew hostile and baseless allegations, and the flood of intimidation and threats continue to track these false narratives. As recently as 2022, my family received threats based on flagrant lies being repeated about the 2020 election.
This must stop. In addition to being an affront to humanity, these threats are an injury to our ability to vote. Every election worker that leaves means our voters and electoral system must rely on inexperienced workers who lack institutional knowledge to carry out complex election processes. The mass exodus of election staff leaves gaps in cybersecurity, chain of custody, auditing and many other advanced skills that strengthen election security and integrity, not to mention mentorship for new staff. And all of this leads to a never-ending cycle of prophecy fulfillment for the conspiracy theorists — in creating chaos and fear for election workers and voters, election denialism is its own poison.
We need to strengthen protections for election workers now, and this must be done at the federal, state and local levels. Congress should pass the Election Worker Protection Act of 2023 to provide more resources to recruit and train election workers and increase protections against threats and intimidation of election workers and interference in the electoral process.
We should also strengthen these protections at the state level; states can look to many statutory models, including those enacted this year in Minnesota. And we also must provide support directly to local officials by providing better training, education, incident response and continuity of operations planning to help deter and respond to threats.
We also must provide adequate and continuing funding for election offices. Any hope for secure elections for our dedicated election workers and voters alike — not to mention the survival of our democracy and our fundamental right to vote — depends on it.