Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Kissimmee, Florida, on November 8, 2022.
CNN  — 

Florida lawmakers were poised this year to protect election workers from harassment. Then, conservative “election integrity” activists worked to kill the effort.

Emails obtained by the investigative group Documented through public record requests – and provided to CNN – show how leaders of a coalition called Florida Fair Elections raised objections to language that sought to make it a third-degree felony to harass or intimidate election workers with the intention of interfering with their duties. Within weeks of the group’s lobbying effort, Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature had stripped the provision from a broad elections bill that passed late last month, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Wednesday.

The Florida group, according to its website, is part of the Election Integrity Network, launched by longtime Republican election lawyer Cleta Mitchell, and its recent advocacy in Florida underscores one way that local organizations are working behind the scenes to shape state policy ahead of the 2024 elections.

Another organization aligned with the network, for instance, is pushing a bill in North Carolina that would give partisan poll watchers more freedom to observe election proceedings and make it more difficult to eject them from polling places. Last year, the state elections board sought to implement stricter rules for observers after local officials complained of interference from some of them during the 2022 primaries.

However, a rules committee review commission – appointed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature – rejected the elections board’s rule changes following comments by Mitchell and others.

“The election denial movement looks different today than it looked in 2020 or 2022, but … there’s so much more that’s happening under the surface,” said Joanna Lydgate, the president and CEO of the States United Democracy Center, a nonprofit that works to advance free and fair elections. “This is a well-coordinated attack on our elections. It’s not letting up.”

Mitchell is perhaps best known for joining former President Donald Trump on a 2021 call during which he asked Georgia’s top election official to “find” the votes needed to overturn his 2020 loss in the state.

In the years since, she has worked to build a standing force of volunteers around the country engaged in elections year-round. In a “citizens guide” published in 2021, she described building a permanent infrastructure of activists to “reclaim the elections processes and systems in America.”

Asked whether she and the network were taking positions on bills that seek to criminalize election worker harassment and empower poll watchers, Mitchell declined to comment, saying she was “not going to respond. Ever” to a reporter’s inquiries.

Top priority

Protecting election officials – particularly the people hired temporarily to work at the polls during voting – from harassment had been among the legislative priorities this year for the Florida Supervisors of Elections, the association that represents the local officials who carry out elections in the state’s 67 counties.

“They work very long hours under difficult and demanding conditions with lots of responsibility, and the least we can do is make sure they are treated properly,” Mark Earley, the top election official in Leon County, Florida, and the president of the supervisors’ group, said of poll workers.

“I think all of the supervisors were pretty surprised it wasn’t included in the final bill,” he said of the anti-harassment language. “It seemed like a pretty obvious and easy step to take.”

The emails obtained by Documented through public record requests show that the leaders of Florida Fair Elections advocated for its removal.

In one email requesting a meeting with state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican member of the Committee on Ethics and Elections, Florida Fair Elections leaders Wendy Nissan and Elizabeth Butler noted that an Ingoglia staffer had “kindly brought up our biggest item to the Senator right before the committee meeting on Tuesday, and he asked very pointed questions about the ‘Harassment of Election Workers’ portion of the bill.”

At that committee meeting, on April 4, Ingoglia suggested the bill should add protections for poll watchers – a term for the usually partisan volunteers deployed by political parties, candidates and third-party groups to “watch” or observe what’s happening at polling places.

He said he was worried that poll watchers would “face the brunt” of any attempt “to harm someone based on party affiliation at the polls.”

State Sen. Danny Burgess, the elections committee’s GOP chairman who helped usher the bill through the legislature, responded that he would consider the change. Emails obtained by Documented show that Nissan and Butler later were offered an April 11 meeting with a Burgess staffer to discuss their concerns.

A little more than a week after that – on April 20 – Burgess announced that the original anti-harassment language for poll workers had been stripped from the bill, along with other changes.

Neither Burgess nor Ingoglia returned messages from CNN seeking comment. Nissan and Butler also did not respond to interview requests about their activity and their concerns about the original language.

In a handout obtained by Documented, Florida Fair Elections argued against a criminal penalty for harassing election workers, saying it equated “language with violence and criminalized speech.” It also cast the proposal as unnecessary because another provision of Florida law already makes threatening another person a crime.

Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who runs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University’s law school, said lawmakers have to consider free-speech protections when weighing criminal penalties like those in Florida.

But she said, “It’s completely reasonable for states to decide they are going to put a premium on threats against election officials, and maybe school board officials or any elected officials, because it’s important to the protection of democracy.”

“People need to feel they can run for elected office, volunteer as election officials without having a target on their backs,” McCord added.

The broad elections bill that passed the legislature at the end of April – without the language adding the criminal penalties – has been met with controversy for other reasons, largely focused on the array of new restrictions that it seeks to impose on voter registration groups.

If the bill is signed into law, as expected, the groups will face fines of up to $250,000 a year in total for multiple infractions, such as failing to turn in voter registration forms on a timely basis or allowing a non-US citizen to register voters, even if that person is a permanent legal resident. Two years ago, the maximum annual fine was capped at $1,000.

Critics argue the new requirements could force groups to abandon voter-registration drives and, ultimately, could make it harder for people of color to vote in the state. Black and Latino voters were five times more likely to register through one of these groups than White residents in 2021, according to research by Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and expert on voting.

Brad Ashwell, Florida director of the voting rights group All Voting is Local, said legislators seemed more focused on restricting voters’ access than on holding people accountable for threatening election workers.

Burgess has repeatedly pushed back on claims that the bill amounts to voter suppression. “This bill does not and will not hinder anyone’s right to vote,” the Republican state senator said during floor debate last month.

Confronting threats

Across the country, a growing number of states are beefing up protections for election workers.

Since January 2022, 10 states – California, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington state – have passed new laws that protect election workers’ personal information or that create or stiffen penalties for harassment of these workers, according to a tally by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks election-related legislation.

“It’s passing in states across the political spectrum,” said Liz Avore, a senior adviser to the group.

Election officials say they welcome more protection, following the waves of abuse they endured after the 2020 election when Trump and his allies made repeated and false claims of a stolen presidential election.

Joe Scott, the top election official in Broward County, Florida, said he has been threatened and called racial slurs in recent years. One woman, he said, told his staffers that they would face the death penalty for mandating in 2021 that poll workers be vaccinated against Covid-19.

And earlier this month, a South Florida man pleaded guilty to threatening Broward County poll workers during last year’s primary, according to the US Justice Department. Federal prosecutors say the man walked into a polling station and was heard counting the number of workers before saying aloud, “should I kill them one-by-one or should I blow the place up.” He is scheduled to be sentenced in July.

Scott said the state legislature could have opted to send a strong message to Floridians that the state will not tolerate threats against the people carrying out its elections. Scott noted that federal law enforcement officials pursued the Broward case, rather than local authorities. (In 2021, the Justice Department established a task force to deal with the threats against local officials.)

“It just would have been a powerful signal that the state government takes the security and safety of its poll workers seriously,” Scott said. “It’s a shame that they decided to take that out at the last minute.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Steve Contorno contributed to this report.