Documenting and Addressing Harassment of Election Officials

By Kim Alexander and Grace Gordon,
electionline Weekly,
June 10, 2021

Imagine if your job responsibilities caused strangers to call you and threaten you and your family with violence. Public servants performing one of the most crucial functions in our society—the administration of the vote—are being subjected to exactly that.

A new report released this week by the California Voter Foundation sheds light on the serious and dangerous problem of harassment faced by U.S. election officials.

“Documenting and Addressing Harassment of Election Officials” features findings from interviews with eleven election officials from six states and eight election experts from different sectors. The election officials were selected based on their experience with or perspective of harassment. Their identities are anonymous for their protection and privacy.

During and after the 2020 election, individuals ranging from pollworkers to local election officials to secretaries of state experienced death threats and other harassment. Many of these attacks are being perpetuated by widespread, unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the presidential election.

On January 6th, 2021, during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, protesters chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” in response to then-vice president Mike Pence trying to certify the results of the 2020 election. In response, Pence was whisked off of the House of Representatives’ floor to safety. During these threats to his life, Mike Pence was serving as an election official.

Today, election officials are still feeling the burden of attacks. In Anchorage, Alaska, an election official experienced “unprecedented harassment” during a mayor’s runoff election in late May. In San Luis Obispo, California, an election official was subjected to an inexcusable racial slur during a voting equipment debate in early May.

While many have tried to put the 2020 election behind us, the harassment of election officials is not going away. An alarmingly high number of election officials have opted to retire, and more may follow, resulting in a significant loss of institutional knowledge.

For some context, 75 percent of local election officials are women, suggesting a possible relationship between gender and aggression, with misogyny helping to fuel attacks. Increased attacks against public health officers and flight attendants have also been reported; what these professions all share in common is a high number of women in positions of authority.

Election officials’ jobs have become increasingly complex over the past twenty years, and with the federal government’s designation of elections as critical U.S. infrastructure, election officials are being asked to take on roles as protectors of national security in addition to protectors of the nation’s democracy.

At the same time, elections are chronically underfunded and under-resourced. This combination of circumstances, paired with the difficulty of pursuing legal actions against those making the threats have contributed to feelings of futility and despair among election officials interviewed.

Some key findings:

  • Death threats, other threats, or abusive language affected 10 of the 11 election officials interviewed. Four officials described experiences where their lives were threatened on phone calls or voicemail messages. Seven officials described threats that included in-person intimidation, stalking, and threats of violence. Six officials described being on the receiving end of abusive language such as expletives and insults. Several officials experienced multiple categories of harassment.
  • Trauma, stress and anxiety were reported as impacts of the harassment experienced by election officials, but officials want to project strength. Election officials also reported fear for the future of the U.S. democratic process and sadness at the public’s loss of trust in the democratic process.
  • Many officials saw speaker intent as a key factor in whether aggressive speech is merely a complaint or potentially illegal threats and harassment. The election officials interviewed agreed that angry constituents have a right to question and complain, even aggressively. Some election officials did not interpret hostile speech as harassment if the speaker sought to get a question answered and drew the line where aggressive speech was intended to harm.

To consider how to address harassment of election officials, we interviewed eight election experts across academia, journalism, and voter advocacy. Experts agreed that in order to address the issue of harassment two overarching strategies will be required: (A) reducing conflict; and (B) increasing the capacity to deal with conflict. The following five recommendations provide a baseline for addressing the harassment of election officials:

  • Improve public education to combat mis- and disinformation.
    Incidents of harassment were often fueled by harmful mis- and disinformation. Election officials and experts interviewed agreed that public education could strengthen the public’s ability to decipher mis- and disinformation, and thus help reduce harassment. Nonprofit voter education and journalism projects need philanthropic support. Social media companies need to help election officials use their platforms effectively and take responsibility for removing false content.
  • Strengthen law enforcement response to incidents of harassment.
    Our research documents examples of speech that qualify as illegal, “true threats,” yet several officials interviewed reported that complaints to law enforcement resulted in no action. For starters, the federal government should begin keeping a repository to collect and document threats against election officials and coordinate responses to such threats.
  • Expand funding and resources for election administration
    Election officials’ resources are often limited and their budgets underfunded. Political leaders must end the “boom and bust” cycle of election funding and create ongoing federal and state funding streams to support local election administration. With sufficient resources and funding, election officials will be better equipped to address unfounded rumors and feel supported.
  • Strengthen legal protections for election officials.
    As public officials, current law makes it difficult for election officials to seek legal action in response to threats. The security of election officials must be included in how we define U.S. election security. Federal and state laws need to be revisited to ensure that harassment does not interfere with the conduct of free and fair federal, state and local elections.
  • Build a cross-sector network of support for election officials.
    Creating and funding a robust network of stakeholders from various sectors – nonprofit, academia, journalism, social media and philanthropy – can help build moral and political support for election officials and U.S. election administration.

If the 2020 election taught us nothing else, we now know our democracy is much more fragile than we thought. The attacks on election officials are just a single example of the harassment faced by public officials. As noted above, public health officers, along with members of Congress and other public officials are experiencing higher levels of harassment.

By tackling the problem of harassment with empathy, compassion and thoughtfulness, the lives of election officials could improve dramatically. Doing so will help safeguard this mission critical role in U.S. elections.

Grace Gordon is a Master of Development Practice graduate from UC Berkeley and the author of “Documenting and Addressing Harassment of Election Officials.”

Kim Alexander is president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization working to improve the voting process to better serve voters. (Full Story)