With less than two months to the midterms and election signs and mailers already abundant, Orange County’s former registrar has launched a new national campaign to ensure the safety of election workers and voters in an increasingly volatile and partisan environment.
The Committee for Safe and Secure Elections – chaired by Neal Kelley, who retired in March, and supported by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice – includes experts in law enforcement and election administration from around the country. Its short-term goal is to connect local law enforcement and election officials to address threats and violence against election workers and voters. Long-term, the group will look to recommend policies and legislation to address the problem more broadly.
Earlier this year, a Georgia election worker and her mother testified to Congress that they had to move to new homes and were afraid of being recognized in public after former President Donald Trump and his supporters accused them publicly of meddling with local election results.
A survey done this year by the Brennan Center found one in six election workers said they’ve personally received threats, and some election offices have reportedly installed surveillance cameras, hired private security and offered active shooter training after an influx of threats of violence.
“There was a collective feeling among a lot of election officials across the country that the threats were increasing, the agitation was increasing as we’re heading into (2022, 2024),” Kelley said. “Some elections officials don’t know what to do, don’t know how they’ll be protected.”
A new concern
Kelley, who ran Orange County’s elections from 2005 until earlier this year, said he got indirect comments on the job such as “There’s going to be blood on your hands if you certify this election,” but some members of his new committee have been targeted with protests in front of their homes and death threats.
It’s a new issue for the workers who check voters in, answer their questions and count ballots. Rick Hasen, a professor of election law at UCLA who has researched threats to election officials, said it stems from the 2020 election.
“I think we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that, because Trump is still claiming that the election was stolen and people are running on platforms of election denialism,” Hasen said.
No one has produced credible evidence of widespread election fraud in 2020 or since, but some candidates have alleged cheating or fraud even before their elections were held. That strategy could potentially undermine democracy by persuading people elections aren’t fair, Hasen said, and “if voters don’t believe that, the whole system can fall apart.”
State Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, considered safety of election workers enough of a problem that he wrote a bill to allow them to keep their home address private via existing state programs that protect law enforcement officials and domestic abuse survivors. The bill was later expanded to cover other public employees and is awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.
Election workers “have found themselves sort of caught in this vortex of partisanship and acrimony,” and sometimes have been subjected to threats and physical altercations, Newman said.
He cited a 2021 national poll of more than 230 electioon workers that found one in three of those surveyed “were concerned about feeling unsafe or being harassed” while doing their job.
Newman said a man called in during public comments in a committee hearing to oppose his bill and “said something like, ‘You can try to hide from us, but we have friends in the post office and we’re going to find you.’”
Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, who’s been an election administrator for more than 30 years, said his office works closely with law enforcement and encourages poll workers to speak up if they have any concerns.
Incidents like what happened to the Georgia poll workers are “extremely worrisome,” because they could discourage people from wanting to volunteer or take jobs running local elections, Logan said. “Does that also then filter down to increasing voter cynicism where people don’t want to participate in an election or they’re not comfortable going to a polling place?”
Addressing the problem
Kelley’s bipartisan committee is working on products, services and training that local election and law enforcement officials can use, including a video that covers what to do when election officials receive a threat and what a successful outcome of an incident should look like.
He previously created a pocket guide for police, who may not be clear on whether a threat at a polling place is a civil or criminal matter; the committee is updating the guide with information and laws specific to each state. There’s also a checklist of steps for election officials with information on how to report threats and tabletop exercises they can do in cooperation with law enforcement.
Kelley, Logan and current Orange County Registrar Bob Page agreed that another important part of addressing the issue is transparency with voters and anyone with questions or concerns about the election process.
Page, who also spent nearly four years as San Bernardino County’s registrar, said he’s focusing on extra training for everyone who works with voters. While the county already has “a really robust” program for people who want to observe ballot counting and verification, he expects even more interest in November – and people are now asking to see other parts of the process, like when ballots are picked up at drop boxes.
He focuses on communicating what his office does and what systems are in place to ensure elections are accurate and secure.
“I can just control explaining honestly what we do,” Page said. “It’s definitely up to the other person how they take that information and what they do with it.”
Logan said in his outreach to voters, he tries to stress that the election process really belongs to the public, and it’s important for them to take part in it.
“There’s an argument to be made that the intent of all this is to discourage people from participating in the election,” he said. “The best defense against those efforts is to participate.”
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