Local election officials are exhausted, under threat and thinking about quitting

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“Over the long run, if this continues, it will be a lot harder to get folks to stick around,” said Natalie Adona, the assistant county clerk-recorder of Nevada County, Calif. “People will retire maybe because they’re just ready to retire because they’ve been doing this for so dang long — or maybe because they feel that the risk is not worth it. But there will be more retirements.”

The poll results confirm Adona’s feeling, with 3 in 10 of the officials surveyed saying they know at least one or two election workers who have left their jobs in part because of fears for their safety. Sixty percent of the respondents said they are concerned that those issues will make it more difficult to retain or recruit election workers in the future.

The poll surveyed nearly 600 local election officials from late January through mid-February, pulled from a list of over 9,000 election officials purchased by the Brennan Center from the U.S. Vote Foundation, another nonprofit group working on elections.

Recent conferences for election officials made clear how the rising number of threats election officials are facing in the aftermath of the 2020 election is changing their jobs.

Attendees at the virtual winter conference for the National Association of Secretaries of State got a briefing from top officials at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the FBI and other agencies for “unclassified updates on the current threat environment.” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold also pushed the national Election Assistance Commission to allow election officials to use federal funds for personal security, saying that she received “22 death threats” the previous week.

And at a conference for the National Association of State Election Directors in late February, Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, gave a presentation on how officials can protect themselves from doxxing, in which someone’s personal information is involuntarily shared online, often leading to harassment or threats.

Election officials are dealing with the threats alongside a pervasive sense that the rest of government is not doing enough to support them. In the Brennan poll, a narrow majority of local election officials said they believed that state governments were either “not doing anything” to support local election officials, or were “taking some steps, but it’s not enough and it should be doing more.” While 71 percent said local government “is doing a good job” of supporting them, nearly 80 percent gave the federal government a failing grade on protecting election workers.

“I think it shows that there’s been a failure in responding to what is a real crisis,” said Lawrence Norden, the senior director of the Brennan Center’s elections and government program. “There’s been a failure of policy response to it. And despite some nice words from many politicians, not nearly enough has been done.”

Norden called for a surge of resources for election officials, including money for security measures if necessary. He also said governments should look into letting election workers opt into shielding personal information from public databases the way some states do for domestic violence victims. And Norden called for robust prosecution for people who threaten officials.

Late last week, Oregon legislators passed the Election Worker Safety Bill to boost penalties for harassing election workers and help prevent their home addresses from being publicly disclosed.

“Our county clerks are really on the front lines here, as well as our elections division staff,” Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said, detailing vandalism at a county clerk’s office that said “next time bullets” after the 2020 election. “When there’s an attack on one of us, it’s an attack on all of us.”

The Department of Justice has touted an election task force it stood up in mid-2021 to go after people who threaten election workers. In late January 2022, the task force made its first public indictment of a Texas man who threatened an unnamed Georgia elections official on Craigslist.

Just 9 percent in the Brennan poll said they were “very familiar” with the DOJ task force, with 42 percent saying they had never heard of it and 48 percent saying they didn’t know very much about it.

Officials place a chunk of the blame for the threats they are facing on social media companies. Nearly 2 in 3 said they believed the spread of false information on social media made their jobs more dangerous, and more than three-quarters said social media companies have not done enough to stop the spread of false information.

Barb Byrum, the clerk of Ingham County, Mich., said social media posts from her office draw conspiracy-fueled comments regularly, even when her posts weren’t related to elections.

“There’s not a megaphone big enough for me to educate the voters on how accurate our elections are. Questions about election administration are welcome,” she said. But the challenge, she continued, is “the cousin that accuses election administrators of inappropriate behavior … that are completely baseless and are just a parrot of what they’re hearing others say.”

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