Editor’s Note: Lawrence Norden is the director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Matthew Weil is director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. View more opinion on CNN.
As states around the country pass laws that will limit access to voting in the name of baseless election integrity concerns, they have almost entirely ignored a very real existential threat to our democracy: the intimidation of and attacks against election officials. Scapegoated as villains by those who believe the Big Lie of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, these officials have become routine targets for harassment and death threats.
According to a national survey commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice, one in three election officials report feeling unsafe because of their job. And one in six reported they had received threats due to their work. Over the past several months, our organizations, together with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University interviewed dozens of election officials about their 2020 experiences. Their stories were harrowing. Several were forced to temporarily abandon their homes, fearing for their safety. Many spent their own money on home security systems. Others required around-the-clock police surveillance. In Georgia, for instance, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his family left their house for nearly a week after receiving scores of death threats and learning that intruders broke into the home of their daughter-in-law.
Election officials stood up in the face of these threats and ran a free and fair 2020 election. But the environment they faced last year hasn’t changed now that the election is over. Officials are still being threatened, with political attacks and disinformation compounding the challenges of their jobs. Democracy cannot survive without public servants who feel safe running elections that are independent and free from political pressure, and a new report by our organizations outlines concrete steps we can take now to stem the tide of this growing danger.
First, the government must prioritize the prosecution of those who menace election officials. Many of the threats election officials and workers received over the past year violate both federal and state laws, and yet there have been precious few prosecutions to date.
Last week, in a speech focused on the current assault on voting rights, Attorney General Merrick Garland noted “the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against … state and local election workers ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers.” We recommend the Justice Department convene an Election Threats Task Force to nationally coordinate a stronger response to these attacks going forward. The task force should include other federal agencies, state and local prosecutors, law enforcement, and election officials. It could provide expertise and resources to combat violent threats against the people responsible for ensuring the integrity of American elections and their families, and ensure that criminal referrals are made to the appropriate authorities.
States also have a significant leadership role to play. In addition to prosecuting wrongdoers, they should pass new laws and appropriate funds to provide more security for election officials and workers, including by providing greater protection for their personally identifiable information, issuing grants to purchase home intrusion detection systems, and offering funds for training and education related to maintaining greater personal security.
Much of the violence directed toward election officials can be traced to disinformation about the electoral process: False claims on social media about how ballots are counted, the myth of rampant voter fraud, and more have the effect of discrediting and undermining the work officials do on a daily basis. Seventy-eight percent of election officials surveyed by the Brennan Center said that social media has made their job more difficult, and 54% believe it has made their job more dangerous.
While some election officials we spoke with noted that social media companies did more in 2020 than in previous elections to take down false postings and promote the truth, it’s clear that platforms aren’t yet where they need to be. Many officials remain deeply frustrated by how difficult it is to break through with accurate information.
Social media companies and search engines can put a thumb on the scale of truth by boosting messages from election officials as much as possible. That requires first identifying all current election officials in the United States (there are more than 8,000 election jurisdictions) and amplifying their official content through systematic mechanisms developed in advance of high stakes elections.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which has worked closely with election officials around the country in recent years, is well positioned to support the creation of an authoritative directory of every election official in the United States, including officials’ websites and social media handles. Once that list is created, it should be shared with platforms for the express purpose of promoting election official content.
To help disrupt the election disinformation at the root of some of the violent threats directed toward election officials, social media companies should develop and consistently apply rules that address repeat mis- and disinformation spreaders, including especially prominent, high-profile individuals. In severe cases, platforms should automatically delay publication of posts, providing time to review them before they are seen by a wide audience.
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Election officials are the unsung heroes of the 2020 election. Despite facing threats to their personal safety, a pandemic and a flood of disinformation, they managed to run an election with the highest turnout in more than 100 years. If we are going to protect our democracy, we must protect them. This will require a whole-of-society approach that includes federal and state legislatures, prosecutors, law enforcement and social media companies. Most importantly, those with the power to do something should consult closely with election officials and workers themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of our democracy depends on it.