One of the under-told stories of the 2020 election has been the array of threats and harassment directed at nonpartisan election officials. Through its diligent work, Reuters news organization has chronicled over 800 threatening or intimidating communications in more than a dozen states.
In one case, after members of Trump’s legal team falsely accused her of carrying out election fraud, a Fulton County, Ga., election worker received several hundred e-mails, 75 text messages, and many phone calls, including the message that “we’re coming to get you.” After Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, rejected lies about election fraud, he got a message warning that if he didn’t tell the truth (as the threatener saw it, that is), “your three kids will be fatally shot.”
In some instances, intimidated election officials have quit their posts and even disguised their appearance to avoid possible danger or further harassment.
“We need to address the fact that we are going to lose a generation of election-administration professionalism and experience, because these individuals did not sign up to be soldiers in a war,” said David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on more efficient and secure elections and higher voter turnout.
Meanwhile, since the 2020 election, GOP lawmakers across the country have been taking measures to strip nonpartisan election officials of their power to oversee election results and supervise counts, and making them more liable for errors. Add to those laws the personal cost of getting attacked and you have a strong deterrent to getting and keeping honest brokers on the job of administering the vote.
Threats and harassment are obviously unacceptable. Democracy has long depended on the service of good, conscientious, knowledgeable state and local election officials. Further, as virtually everyone should know by now — and as several members of Donald Trump’s own administration have acknowledged — this election was absent any sort of large or systematic fraud. Still, there’s a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists devoted to those lies. One Trump-backing website, Gateway Pundit, seems to have made furthering those falsehoods its own special mission.
According to Reuters’ reporting, around 100 of those threats should be legally prosecutable. But that currently requires individual action by law enforcement officials in individual states — and for the most part, that hasn’t happened. Reuters found that despite 102 actionable threats, only four arrests had been made, with no known convictions.
That has to change, says Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, who is part of an effort to highlight the threats and harassment election officials now face on a regular basis and push for solutions. “Intimidating election officials is a threat to democracy,” said Galvin.
One remedy, says Galvin, would be to make it a serious federal crime to threaten or harass election officials. In the Senate, the Democrats’ “Freedom to Vote Act” contains a provision to do just that. It would make it a federal offense for anyone “to intimidate, threaten, coerce, harass, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, coerce, or harass an election worker,” defined as “any individual who is an election official, poll worker, or an election volunteer in connection with an election for a Federal office.”
Those offenses would be punishable by fines of up to $100,000 and a prison term of up to five years, or both.
Problem: So far, that broader legislation has been blocked by Republicans, ostensibly because they consider it a federal takeover of elections, but in reality because they believe making it harder to vote will benefit their party at the polls.
With the primary stage of the midterm election cycle starting in March and in full swing by May, action is needed soon, which is why Galvin thinks Democrats would be well-advised to break out the aforementioned provision and offer it as stand-alone legislation.
“This really should be a bipartisan issue, since many of the people who have been threatened are Republicans,” Galvin noted.
Meanwhile, two widely respected national attorneys — former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer and well-known Republican election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg — are leading an effort to help election officials counter the threats and harassment they face.
The two are cochairs of the recently formed Election Official Legal Defense Network, which operates under the auspices of the aforementioned Center for Election Innovation & Research. The network helps connect election administrators with qualified pro bono legal help as they confront threats and harassment.
If more Americans knew about the regular threats election officials receive, many would agree the situation is worrisome — and that it’s high time for Congress to act.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.