Voter intimidation, election worker threats part of voting climate ahead of midterms

(WASHINGTON) — In the wake of the 2020 election, state and local election officials have faced a wave of threats and misinformation, prompting mass resignations up and down their ranks — and stoking fear among some experts that their replacements would put partisan loyalties above the free and fair administration of the election.

In the weeks and months after the 2020 vote, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that one-third of election workers reported feeling unsafe because of their job. Nearly one-fifth of respondents listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

ABC News reported in June 2021 that dozens of election administrators at the state and local level had resigned their posts at an alarming rate in places like South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. In August, ABC News reported that persistent threats and misinformation had prompted a “second wave” of resignations in at least nine states.

Election worker threats

In Georgia, two election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, were forced into hiding after Rudy Giuliani and conservative media outlets accused the mother-daughter duo of conspiring to commit election fraud. The two testified about their experience before the Jan. 6 committee.

Stephen Richer, the Republican chief elections officer in Maricopa County, Arizona, faced an onslaught of death threats after overseeing a controversial audit of the 2020 election, which lead him to cease attending political events for fear of his safety.

In response to the wave of threats targeting election workers, the Justice Department launched a task force focused on these complaints — but results have been paltry, state and local officials have said. In August, the task force said it had reviewed “over 1,000” reports of threats — though only 11% had met the threshold for federal criminal investigation. Seven cases have been charged — one of whom was convicted and sentenced in October to 18 months in prison.

Georgia’s office of secretary of state has launched a text message alert notification tool for election workers to report threats or security issues.

With so many election officials leaving their jobs, democracy experts fear their departures will leave an “institutional knowledge” gap about election administration, and their replacements may harbor partisan motivations.

Indeed, as ABC News reported in January, many Republican-led efforts to recruit new poll workers took on a partisan bent. More recently, ABC News reported that allies of former President Donald Trump have used false election claims to recruit ex-military members as poll workers.

Voting machines

Electronic voting machines became a target of many falsehoods and disproven conspiracy theories in the wake of 2022, with Republican activists falsely claiming that certain devices were somehow manipulated to switch votes from Trump to President Joe Biden, among others.

Dominion Voting Systems, one of the nation’s largest voting machine purveyors, filed multiple lawsuits against conservative news outlets and Trump allies over the promulgation of “outlandish” conspiracy theories involving its product.

Tina Peters, a county recorder in Mesa County, Arizona, was indicted in May 2021 on charges associated with a security breach in her office. Peters, a Trump supporter and election denier, allegedly allowed an unauthorized person to obtain voter machine logs and a forensic copy of its hard drive. The documents later emerged on the internet. Peters has pleaded not guilty.

Concerns over voting software and hardware will be front and center again in 2022, and the Ballotwatch team will be on the lookout for both unfounded claims and legitimate vulnerabilities with election infrastructure.

Nevada Secretary of State, Republican Barbara Cegavske, recently approved a proposal to allow counties to hand-count votes this fall after Nye County, based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, decided earlier this year to abandon the Dominion voting machines it had relied on for years.

Access to the vote

Long lines and access to polling locations have long been the scourge of democracy advocates — and 2022 will likely be no different. Republican-led state legislatures have enacted dozens of laws restricting voting access since 2020, including many that would repeal 2020 exceptions for the covid-19 pandemic.

Since the beginning of 2021, lawmakers have passed at least 42 restrictive voting laws in 21 states, according to the Brennan Center. Among those laws, 33 contain at least one restrictive provision that is in effect for the midterms in 20 states.

ABC News recently reported that the promulgation of election-related threats has made some schools and churches reconsider whether it is safe to continue serving as polling locations, prompting concerns among some election officials that voters may face more difficulty casting their ballots in November and beyond.

Voter intimidation and poll watchers

Partisan poll watchers representing both Republicans and Democrats have observed elections for decades. But in the run-up to the 2020 election, former President Trump’s allies sought to weaponize these actors for their own political benefit, demonstrating behavior that some democracy advocates say amounted to voter intimidation.

Ahead of the midterms, more of the same appears to be underway.

In Arizona, for example, multiple cases of alleged voter intimidation at drop box locations have already been referred to the Justice Department. Complaints described individuals loitering near the drop box locations, filming, and photographing voters as they returned their ballots and, in some cases, taking photographs of the voters’ license plates.

On Tuesday, a federal issued a temporary restraining order to prohibit some people accused of voter intimidation from gathering near ballot boxes and surveilling voters, ruling that observers must remain at least 75 feet away from drop boxes and banning open carry and body armor within 250 feet.

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