Lawmakers in at least three states are considering measures to counter the onslaught of threats that state and local election officials have endured in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
In Maine, a bill slated for debate in a legislative committee later this week would increase the penalty for threatening an election official with violence. In Vermont, a measure introduced this month aims to make it easier to prosecute culprits. And in Washington, the state Senate has approved a bill that would make harassing election workers a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
The bills advancing at the state level follow the US Senate’s failure last week to pass sweeping federal voting legislation that, among other things, would have made it a federal crime to reveal personal information about election officials, poll workers or their families with the goal of threatening or intimidating them.
Election workers have faced a barrage of harassment and threats following the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump and his allies have relentlessly pushed the falsehood that widespread election fraud contributed to his loss of the presidency.
Nearly 1 in 3 local election officials included in a survey last year conducted for the Brennan Center for Justice said they felt unsafe because of their jobs.
Larry Norden, senior director of the elections and government program at the Brennan Center, said it’s important to hold offenders accountable with tougher laws. But he said the bigger problem rests with the reluctance of law enforcement officials to prosecute the harassers using existing laws.
“Under a lot of state laws,” he said, “threatening to kill somebody or to commit violence where the person has a reasonable fear that it will be carried out, that’s prosecutable.”
Norden said election officials need other assistance as well, such as training on how to protect their personal information and extra funding to secure their offices and homes, if needed.
‘Strong statement’ needed
In Washington state, the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. David Frockt, said he was “appalled” by the actions of protesters following the 2020 election. They included an incident on January 6, 2021, in which Trump supporters broke through the gate at Gov. Jay Inslee’s mansion and protested on the lawn – the same day that Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
And in the weeks after Trump’s election loss, personal information about the state’s elections director was posted on a website that described her along with other election workers and elected officials as “enemies of the people,” according to The Seattle Times.
Frockt said lawmakers need to “make a strong statement that, at a minimum, we’re going to protect these election workers, who are doing a very noble service and have always done it without controversy in Washington.”
His bill passed the state Senate unanimously earlier this month. It now sits in a House public safety committee.
So far, federal officials have charged one person in connection with threats against election workers.
On Friday, the US Justice Department charged a Texas man who had allegedly made threats against election officials in Georgia. It was the first charge to come from an election task force established six months ago by the Justice Department to deal with the threats. The man was charged with using interstate communications to make a threat, a federal crime.
The department has reviewed more than 850 reports of threats to election officials and has dozens of ongoing investigations, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite told reporters last week.
New proposals in New England
In Vermont, a bill introduced last week aims to make it easier for bring charges against offenders. The measure is broad – establishing that it’s a crime to threaten anyone or a group of people with violence.
The push for new legislation in Vermont follows a Reuters report in November detailing repeated threats against election officials in the state and elsewhere.
Law enforcement officials in the state had declined to pursue charges against a Vermont man believed to have left threatening messages for Secretary of State Jim Condos and others, concluding that the calls amounted to protected free speech under state law.
The new proposal also would eliminate the burden on prosecutors to demonstrate that an offender has the ability to carry out the threat.
If someone is making threatening calls, “it can cause harm and trauma,” even if the culprit doesn’t have the means to carry it out, said state Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat who’s one of the bill’s sponsors.
Sears chairs the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing on the legislation Friday.
In Maine, a legislative committee is slated to debate a measure Friday that would make it a felony to interfere “by force, violence or intimidation or by any physical act” with an election official.
Democratic state Rep. Bruce White, the bill’s sponsor, said he’s followed closely the reports of the threats nationally and decided the state needed to increase its penalties. Volunteers and paid election workers in Maine, he said, now “feel very uncomfortable” doing their jobs.
Democratic Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows recently told legislators that her office has documented reports of at least two threats of physical violence against municipal clerks. “This is unacceptable,” she said.
She added, “An attack on our election workers when they are running an election is an attack on our democracy.”