MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Lawmakers in a handful of states are seeking greater protections for election officials amid growing concerns for their safety after they were targeted by threats of violence following the 2020 presidential election.
Widespread threats against those who oversee elections, from secretaries of state to county clerks and even poll workers, soared after former President Donald Trump and his allies spread false claims about the outcome of the presidential election. “Corrupt secretaries will all hang when the stolen election is revealed” is just one example of the vitriol that has come from social media, emails and phone messages.
Even in Vermont, where the outcome wasn't disputed, election workers have faced threats. A caller to the secretary of state's office said in 2020 that a firing squad would target “all you cheating (vulgarity),” and “a lot of people are going to get executed.”
To counter the threats, lawmakers have introduced bills so far in Vermont and several other states, including Illinois, Maine, New Mexico and Washington, all of which have legislatures controlled by Democrats. Much of the legislation would create or boost criminal liability for threats and, in Illinois, for assaults against election workers.
More legislation is possible, as election officials warn that the ongoing attacks endanger democracy and that many election workers have quit or are considering doing so because of the abuse they have faced since the 2020 election.
“Nationally, we are seeing longtime experienced election leaders and their staffs leaving their positions for other work because they’ve had it — this is it, this has crossed the line,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat.
A survey of local election officials commissioned by the Brennan Center last April found one in three 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 no evidence of the type of widespread fraud that would be needed to question the outcome, in which President Joe Biden won by more than 7 million votes.
One bill under consideration in Vermont would expand the definition of criminal threatening to make it easier to prosecute those acts. Another would heighten the penalty for the criminal threatening of election officials, public employees and public servants.
During a recent legislative committee hearing, Condos described how the threatening calls had scared one staffer to the point that he was afraid to leave work and walk to his vehicle. He eventually took time off and sought counseling for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.
“No election official should ever need to fear for their life for their role in serving our country’s democracy in this or any election,” Condos said.
A bill in Maine would make threats against election officials a class C felony, after threats to two local clerks in 2021.
“The message has to be loud and clear that this is a threat to our democracy,” said Democratic Rep. Bruce White, the sponsor. “Threatening people who work our elections is entirely unacceptable.”
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, left her home for weeks as a safety precaution in response to security concerns. A Democrat-sponsored bill introduced last month expands the felony crime of intimidation to include acts against employees and agents of the secretary of state, county clerks and municipal clerks.
Supporters of the legislation said expanding protections to all election office workers is important because threats haven't been limited to top-level staff.
In Fulton County, Georgia, two election office workers — one a temporary employee — filed a lawsuit in December against a conservative website, accusing it of spreading false stories about them. Their lawsuit said the false claims led to a “deluge of intimidation, harassment, and threats that has forced them to change their phone numbers, delete their online accounts, and fear for their physical safety.”
In the weeks following the election, a top Georgia elections official condemned the onslaught of threats and called on 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 Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and sending sexualized threats to Raffensperger’s wife.
At the federal level, an election threats task force within the U.S. Department of Justice has reviewed more than 850 reports of threats to election officials, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said. Two people have been charged with federal crimes for threatening election workers, including a Texas man charged with threatening to kill government officials in Georgia after the 2020 election. Polite said the department also has dozens of open investigations.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said it's imperative that harassers face prosecution.
“Unless people are held accountable, this kind of behavior is going to continue,” she said.
In October, a congressional committee heard from election officials about graphic threats to their safety since the 2020 election.
Legislation also was introduced by a group of Democrats in the U.S. Senate last year that would make it a federal crime for any person to intimidate or threaten an election worker. It became part of a larger effort by Democrats to create federal standards for voting and restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
That broader effort has since stalled, although there are signs that a bipartisan proposal may be in the works that could shore up what election experts have described as weaknesses in the nation’s electoral process. That proposal also might include ways to boost protections for election workers who are facing threats and harassment.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said she continues to receive threats and was working on a legislative proposal to protect election workers.
“I don’t think that signing up to administer elections should mean that you’re afraid that someone is going to hurt you,” Griswold said. “We can’t have an atmosphere where election workers are afraid to do what’s right, afraid to uphold the will of the people, because they’re afraid for their kids and for their homes and their lives. That’s not a democracy.”