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Election workers process vote-by-mail ballots at the Orange County Registrar of Voters less than two weeks before midterms Election Day on 27 October 2022 in Santa Ana, California. Orange County is the fifth largest voting jurisdiction in the United States and holds 1.8 million registered voters. (Photo by Mario Tama, Getty)

Election Workers Face Wave of Violent Threats, Lack of Security Investment

Poll and election workers are on the frontlines of an increasingly charged political environment in the United States as the 2022 midterm elections approach. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that election workers are facing heightened threats, and some polling places are scrambling to boost security to protect workers and election infrastructure as early voting starts and before Election Day on 8 November.

During its first year of operations, the DOJ’s Threats to Election Workers Task Force reviewed more than 1,000 contacts reported as hostile or harassing by the election community—11 percent of which met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation.

“While many of the contacts were often hostile, harassing, and abuse towards election officials, they did not include a threat of unlawful violence,” according to a DOJ news release. But some did.

“When we come to lynch your stupid lying Commie [expletive], you’ll remember that you lied on the [expletive] Bible, you piece of [expletive]. You’re gonna die, you piece of [expletive]. We’re going to hang you. We’re going to hang you,” a 64-year-old Iowa man allegedly said in a voicemail left for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in 2021, the DOJ said. The man, Mark Rissi, was arrested in October 2022 on charges of making a threatening interstate communication and making a threatening phone call.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned in June 2022 that threats to election workers and infrastructure would likely heighten as the midterms approach, especially given calls for violence from domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, and election workers.

The New York Police Department has also called for “elevated vigilance” ahead of the midterms, warning that extremists could target political events and polling sites, Reuters reported.

“Threats to election workers not only threaten the safety of the individuals concerned, but also jeopardize the stability of the U.S. electoral process,” the FBI said in a press release earlier this month. The FBI defines election workers broadly—including elected officials, appointed officials, staff, volunteers, contractors, vendors, and liaisons who have some responsibility for elections.

“The precautions stem from the unprecedented intimidation of election officials and workers during the 2020 presidential vote—an election that Trump continues to falsely claim was rigged—even though numerous courts, law enforcement, and high-ranking Republican officials have found no evidence of widespread fraud,” CNBC reported.

Poll workers are feeling the pressure. Many of them are volunteers or part-time workers, and a March 2022 report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that nearly one in three local election officials know at least one worker who left his or her job due in part to safety concerns, elevated threats, or intimidation. One in six local officials has personally experienced threats. More than half of those officials have been threatened in person.

Overall, the study found that 77 percent of local election officials said they feel that threats against election workers have increased in recent years.

Election officials reported being very or somewhat concerned about the safety of their colleagues (54 percent); being harassed over the phone or voicemail (45 percent); being verbally harassed on the job (48 percent); being harassed on social media (41 percent); their loved ones or family being threatened or harassed (21 percent); and being assaulted on the job (28 percent), the Brennan Center for Justice report found.

One in five local election officials are very or somewhat unlikely to continue serving in their job through 2024, citing politicians’ attacks on election systems, stress, and retirement plans as the primary reasons to leave. Many workers polled for the report said they feared that the threats and intimidation would stymie future recruitment efforts to election official positions.

Their fears seem legitimate. Hundreds of jurisdictions across the United States are reporting poll worker shortages amid safety concerns, CBS News reported.

In 2020, the Help America Vote Act authorized $425 million in funding to support election infrastructure and security enhancements, and a further $75 million was authorized in 2022. Some polling places and election sites have taken advantage of these resources. Others have not been able to cut through the red tape.

Federal officials are offering state and local election workers de-escalation training to help them handle confrontations with voters, CNN reported in September. The training includes non-confrontational techniques and guidance on how to determine if an emergency response or law enforcement is warranted.

Some polling sites and election offices added surveillance cameras, hired security officers, and made additional improvements since the 2020 elections. In Arizona’s Maricopa County, officials used the funding to add locks and lighting to the recorder’s office. In Michigan, $211,000 was spend on radios and other security election tools. Oklahoma used funding from DHS to install panic button applications on election workers’ phones so they could quickly summon police. Georgia launched a text alert system so poll workers can report any threats at polling places, NBC News reported.

But others are too late—especially in some battleground states where political tension is high, CNN noted.

“CNN reviewed data since 2020 from two federal grant programs run by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security worth hundreds of millions of dollars that election officials—along with a range of other state and local government agencies—are eligible to apply for to protect themselves from physical threats,” the article said. “In those seven battleground states, CNN identified only a handful of grant expenditures worth a combined total of a little more than $1 million that were dedicated to physical security for election officials.”

Security threats are also coming from cyberspace. The Brennan Center for Justice report found that nearly two-thirds of officials said that false information is making their jobs more dangerous, and almost all blame social media for spreading the misinformation. The trends and conspiracies around voting fraud are constantly evolving and escalating, especially through social media.

For example, people have started standing watch outside ballot drop boxes in some cities, hoping to catch a “ballot mule” dropping off hundreds of fake ballots in the middle of the night. This conspiracy theory has been widely debunked, but that has not stopped people patrolling voting sites, sometimes wearing military-style fatigues and masks over their faces, NBC News reported.