Three state and local election officials testified before a Senate committee about their terrifying experiences since last year’s election in support of proposed voting reform legislation.
Two weeks after the 2020 presidential election, a crowd of protesters gathered outside the home of Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state.
“Katie, come out and play,” they chanted. “We’re watching you.”
The threats, which also targeted Hobbs’ children and husband, came from far-right voters who believed former President Donald Trump’s false assertions that the election was stolen from him in states like Arizona, Hobbs said this week at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
And they’ve reached far beyond her, she added.
“What concerns me more is the near-constant harassment faced by the public servants who administer our elections,” said Hobbs, a candidate for governor in Arizona. “These are people who truly make our government work. They never ran for office or appeared in political ads. But nearly every day they are on the receiving end of abusive phone calls and emails. We’re seeing high turnover among elections staff, and I fear that many more will reach a breaking point and decide that this line of public service is no longer worth it.”
The hearing, held Tuesday, gave state and local election officials the opportunity to brief lawmakers on the continued threats and harassment directed their way, most stemming from the failed legal challenges and torrent of misinformation that followed last year’s election. Their testimony urged Congress to pass a suite of voting rights legislation, including a bill that would strengthen protections for election administrators during the voting, counting and certification processes.
State and local elections officials have begged for similar protections throughout the last year, since Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election failed. In addition to threats and harassment from members of the public, elections administrators have been censured and removed from their jobs for telling the truth about Joe Biden’s victory, while others face new policies that replace elected leaders with appointed (and partisan) officials to oversee election processes.
Non-elected elections officials have often borne the brunt of that ire. A third of those workers feel unsafe in their jobs, and one in five said that threats to their lives had become a normal part of their work, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice. The intimidation has spread to other offices as well, Hobbs said, at times hindering citizens’ ability to access routine services.
“As secretary of state, my office also has divisions that are important for a person looking to start a business, get a document notarized, or protect their address from a stalker or an abusive former partner,” she said. “These divisions have also been targeted by election conspiracy-inspired harassment, affecting not only the staff who experience it, but the public’s ability to access the services they need.”
Prior to 2020, most election administrators operated in obscurity, said Al Schmidt, one of three city commissioners in Philadelphia, elected positions that oversee elections and voter registration. But after the election, an “avalanche of meritless litigation and propaganda seeking to disenfranchise eligible voters” thrust Schmidt and his staff into the spotlight, releasing a flood of threats that has yet to abate.
“The death threats toward myself and my deputy commissioner became more specific in nature after we were publicly mentioned by former President Trump and his campaign,” he said. “My wife and I received threats that named our children, included my home address and images of my home, and threatened to put their ‘heads on spikes.’ What was once a fairly obscure administrative job is now one where lunatics are threatening to murder your children.”
‘Public Officials Are At Risk’
While the issue received more attention after last year, officials said that harassment against them is not new or limited to one party. In Kentucky, election officials fielded verbal abuse and threats of violence from progressive activists and Democratic donors after celebrities decried a decision to limit the number of polling places in a June 2020 primary contest, said Michael Adams, the state’s top election official.
“Addressing this should not be a partisan issue, because misinformation is not limited to one side,” he said.
The continued misinformation is a concern, Adams said, as is the likelihood that it will continue to spread to other areas of government.
“Election officials are at risk, but we are not unique in this. Public officials are at risk,” he said. “In Kentucky, our Democratic governor has received threats from some on the far right and our Republican attorney general has received threats from some on the far left. Even public health officials in our state have received threats, and my fear is that school board members will be next, if they aren’t already.”
Despite the ubiquity of the harassment, most officials received little protection even after reporting specific threats, said Matthew Masterson, a fellow at the Stanford University Internet Observatory.
“In many cases, officials who reported these threats received little, if any, support from local, state or federal law enforcement officials,” he told lawmakers. “Many of the threats were deemed not serious or imminent enough to necessitate action.”
There are a number of steps that Congress could take to ensure the safety and integrity of both the election process and the people who oversee it, Masterson said, including reliable funding of elections at all levels and harsher penalties for people who threaten election officials.
That last bit is particularly important, as election workers are likely to remain more public than they were previously, he said.
“For the foreseeable future, election administrators will be in the spotlight, forced to deal with advanced and persistent cyberthreats, as well as physical threats of violence,” he said. “The only response to this sustained attack on our democracy is a sustained investment in protecting it.”
Hobbs was more direct in her conclusion. Thousands of Americans—ballot counters, certification officials, judges who presided over baseless legal challenges—worked for months to ensure the fair and comprehensive oversight of the 2020 election, she said.
“At every turn, the people who believe in American democracy have stepped up and protected it,” she told the committee. “Now it’s your turn.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.