Threats and harassment are causing a crisis for election workers and could endanger the integrity of upcoming elections, speakers said Monday at an annual gathering of local officials from around the country.
The problem is personal for Bill Gates, a member of Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors who has repeatedly shared his own experience with threats in Arizona. But it goes beyond any one county and reflects “a time today very different than what we had in the past,” he said.
“We have to be concerned with the physical security of our workers,” Gates told guests at the Washington Hilton hotel during a panel discussion at the National Association of Counties, or NACo, legislative conference.
And President Joe Biden, in an address to the conference earlier that day, put the danger in stark terms.
“We have to defend our democracy. To all the county election workers in America, thank you. I never thought I’d have to say this to anybody, but thank you for your physical courage,” Biden said. “The idea that I ever thought I’d be standing before over 1,000 county officials and having to thank somebody for being an election worker, because they’re putting their life at risk. … Something’s wrong, folks. We gotta change this. We gotta change the attitude in this country.”
Biden was the highlight of day three of the four-day conference, which drew roughly 2,000 county leaders from across the country, according to NACo. Those officials met with federal government officials, members of Congress, representatives from the private sector and senior administration officials for a series of workshops and panels on issues ranging from disaster preparedness to artificial intelligence and more ahead of 2024’s elections.
“Each election cycle, counties play a role in managing over 100,000 polling places and coordinating the training of over 630,000 poll workers that are essential to ensure that citizens can exercise their right to vote,” said Curtis Koch, auditor of Utah’s Davis County and chair of one of NACo’s policy steering committees, as he kicked off Monday’s session on election administration.
“This is not easy work,” Koch continued. “And as we know, election administration has over the past few years become a topic of intense public interest and, at times, conspiracy. As such, supporting county election officials and maintaining the integrity of our elections continues to be a top priority of the National Association of Counties.”
Gates, a Republican, experienced the impact of those conspiracies firsthand. He announced in June he wouldn’t seek reelection after receiving a deluge of vitriol from supporters of former President Donald Trump who believe the 2020 election was stolen. Maricopa County is Arizona’s largest and has been a hotbed for election misinformation and conspiracy theories, propagated in part by former Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Senate candidate Kari Lake.
During the panel discussion on election security with other Arizona officials, Gates described election workers logging 14- to 16-hour shifts, only to be met outside by angry protesters, some of whom took videos and photos of the workers and their license plates. Gates told The Washington Post last year that he now struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers recalled armed individuals showing up to polls to intimidate voters and election workers. And he stressed the need for steady funding to support county and state governments who are struggling to administer elections and protect workers.
“We need to ensure — whether it be with federal funding or state funding, or if counties can manage on their own — that we do keep those election workers safe,” said Sellers. “Because one of the serious problems we’ve had is the most experienced and knowledgeable people in the elections field have moved on to other things because they feel that they’re not safe in the job.”
One proposal comes from Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, who with Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., introduced legislation last year to strengthen federal support for poll workers.
The legislation would authorize the Election Assistance Commission to make funds available to states for the recruitment and training of election workers and volunteers, along with security services and social media threat monitoring.
Klobuchar cited a recent survey that found nearly 1 in 3 local election officials reported being abused, harassed or threatened, and more than 1 in 5 said they knew people who had left their jobs due to safety concerns. She also said letters were reportedly sent to election officials or government buildings in six states last fall, some containing fentanyl or other unidentified substances.
“That’s unacceptable,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a video statement at the conference. “Keeping our elections fair and free isn’t a red issue or blue issue. It’s an American issue.”
House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil and the House GOP have also made the administration of elections a top priority in the 118th Congress, though with less focus on physical security.
In July, the committee advanced a sprawling package, dubbed the American Confidence in Elections (ACE) Act, that they said would help strengthen voter trust in elections and improve election integrity. Democrats on the panel have repeatedly asserted that their GOP counterparts are engaging in conspiracy theories about stolen elections.
A full section of the ACE Act, which hasn’t gotten a vote on the House floor and has little chance of making headway in the Democrat-controlled Senate, contains proposals to overhaul the administration of elections, such as controversial voter ID requirements.
“I always say elections are inherently partisan. But the operation of elections should be nonpartisan,” Steil, R-Wis., said during a brief presentation at Monday’s event, where he highlighted ACE Act priorities, including barring the kind of private donations that he has argued raised doubts about the fairness of elections during the pandemic.
He acknowledged the financial constraints on many election administrators, but said he is also generally opposed to increased federal funding. Several county officials in the crowd took issue.
Chris Walker, county clerk in Jackson County, Oregon, said her department was short enough on money that they recently had to cut staff heading into a busy election cycle. Walker noted the $75 million in election security grants proposed in the fiscal 2024 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill. If that funding is divided by 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and other territories, or by more than 8,000 election jurisdictions, it amounts to very little, Walker said.
“The funding is hugely inadequate. Although appreciated, anything that has been passed down to the lower levels is just really inadequate, especially coming into this large election cycle,” Walker said during a Q&A session.
Steil responded that increased federal funding could mean less control over elections at the state and county level and more red tape. And, he said, Congress simply doesn’t have the resources.
“Congress doesn’t have extra money lying around right now. To a tune of about $1.5 trillion per year, Congress is spending more than they bring in,” Steil said. “I just don’t want anybody to walk out of here thinking that all of a sudden this massive flow of funds is going to come forward.”