ATLANTA – Federal proposals that would have significantly boosted security funding for election offices and heightened penalties for threatening their staff failed to advance this year, leaving state officials looking to their legislatures for support.
The massive budget bill that passed Congress on Friday will send $75 million in election security grants to states, an amount that falls far short of what many officials had sought as state and local election workers have been targeted with harassment and even death threats since the 2020 presidential election. They also were disappointed that proposals to make such threats a federal crime with more severe penalties fizzled.
Absent federal action, several state election officials — many of whom have faced an unrelenting wave of attacks for two years — say they plan to push their lawmakers to increase protections for themselves, their staffs and those who run elections at the local level. Some of them were confronted by angry protesters in public and even outside their homes who were motivated by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his reelection had been stolen.
“We need to take care of the people that work in elections," said Cisco Aguilar, shortly after he won his midterms race to be Nevada’s next secretary of state. “They shouldn’t feel intimidated or harassed going to the car at the end of the day." He added: "We have to have their back.”
Aguilar, a Democrat, said he plans to work with Nevada lawmakers to pass a bill making it a felony to harass or intimidate an election worker or volunteer. While Democrats kept control of the state Legislature, Republican Joe Lombardo was elected governor and his office declined to say whether he would support such an effort.
In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who faced an onslaught of threats as he withstood pressure from Trump to “find” enough votes to cancel President Joe Biden's win in the state, said he also would like to see penalties increased on those who threaten election workers. It's not clear whether that will be a priority for the Legislature, where Republicans control both chambers.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has said she plans to call on the newly elected Democratic majority in the Legislature to allocate $100 million annually to local election offices after clerks complained about being underfunded. She also wants to make it a felony to threaten election workers and heighten penalties for those who spread misinformation, especially related to voting rights.
She said tactics used in the 2020 election could be attempted again during the next presidential election unless lawmakers enact tougher countermeasures.
“We are looking to turn back the tide on misinformation and the violence that’s come into our political discourse," said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of State. “We need that era to be put behind us, both in Michigan and as a country, because it’s not safe. It’s not what America’s about.”
Conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election prompted a surge in threats and harassment of state and local election officials that persists two years later. The threats have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country, particularly at the local level, raising concerns about a loss of expertise in running elections heading into the 2024 presidential cycle.
The threats have drawn the attention of federal law enforcement, which established a task force in mid-2021 to review cases for possible prosecution. Last October, one of the cases resulted in an 18-month prison sentence for a Nebraska man who made online threats against Colorado’s top state election official. A federal grand jury on Dec. 14 indicted an Ohio man for making recent threats against an official in the Arizona secretary of state’s office.
But the number of prosecutions remains small overall as federal authorities must meet a legal standard of proving a “serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence,” which can be a challenge.
Experts say it’s critical that those making threats are held accountable and that strong protections are in place to deter future attacks. A survey of local election officials commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2021 found one in three felt unsafe because of their job and one in six said they had been threatened.
“Many have cited this as an important contributor to why they are leaving office," said Liz Howard, a former Virginia state election official now with the Brennan Center. “We don’t have to guess why — they are telling us."
Various proposals introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Jon Ossoff and Republican Sen. Susan Collins to boost protections did not gain enough support to pass the chamber and were not in the $1.7 trillion government spending bill. Klobuchar said she would continue to seek money for election offices and noted that she and Republican Sen. Roy Blunt had pushed to allow election officials to use previous federal funding for security upgrades.
Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat who previously served as California's secretary of state, called election workers the “backbone of our democracy” and said more must be done to ensure their safety.
"In the wake of escalating attacks on our electoral institutions, I’m disappointed that my Republican colleagues did not come to the table this year to protect the thousands of election workers who safeguard our democracy,” he said in a statement.
Some states have acted on their own. Since 2020, California, Colorado and Maine have passed legislation increasing protections for election workers. In California, this meant allowing them to keep their home addresses confidential.
In Colorado, Secretary of State Jena Griswold worked with state lawmakers on legislation known as the Election Official Protection Act, which establishes election workers as a protected class against doxing — the release online of someone’s personal information. It makes the practice a misdemeanor and allows election workers to remove their personal information from online records. It also makes threatening an election official a misdemeanor under state law.
“Congress must act to protect election officials and workers who are critical to administering free and fair elections,” Griswold said. “But in the absence of federal action, states should pass laws like the Election Official Protection Act.”
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Gabe Stern in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.