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Worries Grow About Election Safety and Security

Election officials are working in an unprecedented climate of antagonism, with threats on the increase. A nonpartisan group of election and law enforcement officials have joined forces to give them resources and support.

Ongoing threats have brought heightened focus to what it will take to keep voters and election administrators safe.
(Brian Cassella/TNS)
Controversy over election outcomes is not new. Overall voter confidence that votes were properly counted was lower after presidential elections in 2012 and 2016 than it was in 2020. What is new is the level of overt hostility toward the people who administer elections, manifested in an ongoing pattern of threats to their personal safety.

Recent congressional hearings have included emotional accounts from election officials at all levels, from threats to the family members of a senior official to the crippling fallout when an election worker was falsely accused of fraud, by name, by the former president and his attorney.

Spurred on by misinformation, including continued assertions from campaigning politicians that a national election was somehow “stolen,” members of the public have not backed off from such harassment.

A Brennan Center poll of election officials, conducted more than two years after the 2020 election, found that one in six had experienced threats. Almost 80 percent said that threats had increased in recent years, and 30 percent knew election workers who left their jobs because they felt unsafe.

More than three-fourths felt the federal government should be doing more to support them, and one in three said the same about their local government. Members of the election and law enforcement communities have joined together to help fill this void, forming the nonpartisan Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE).
The testimony of former Georgia election worker Wandrea ArShaye "Shaye" Moss during the U.S. House select committee's fourth hearing on its Jan. 6 investigation offered a chilling look at the depth of the potential impact from false accusations of misconduct.
(Yuri Gripas/TNS)

Joining Forces

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that threats against election officials are occurring regularly throughout the country, says CSSE Chairman Neal Kelly, who recently retired from serving almost two decades as registrar of voters in Orange County, Calif.

“After the 2020 election, I thought it would subside,” he says. “Then we went into the California governor’s recall and the vitriol just intensified — it has the potential to grow, certainly and to get worse in 2024.”

The work of the committee revolves around developing and sharing resources and training that will make election officials aware of best practices for keeping elections and election administrators safe. It will also advocate for relevant legislation.

A major strategy for accomplishing these goals is the inclusion of leaders from law enforcement on the committee, and the “resources” section of the CSSE website has pages for both election administrators and law enforcement.

“Law enforcement has been somewhat unaware of the scope of threats that election officials have been facing,” says committee member Orion Danjuma, counsel for Protect Democracy. “The goal of the committee is to create a cross-partisan coalition of election workers and law enforcement who use the resources of both of those communities to prevent violence, intimidation and threats.”

Until she received death threats while working as city clerk for Rochester Hills, Mich., committee member Tina Barton had never thought conversations with law enforcement would be part of her job.

Married to a law enforcement officer for 32 years, Barton quickly realized how valuable that perspective could be in the environment she found herself in — it would be natural for her to count electric outlets and check handicap accessibility in a prospective election space, not look for security vulnerabilities or potential exit routes.
PA Election Official.jpg
Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia's top elections official: “I’m not the mayor. I shouldn’t need police protection."
(Tyger Williams/TNS)

What’s Illegal and What’s Not?

Justin Smith, another member of the CSSE committee, is the sheriff of Larimer County, Colo. He’d watched election turmoil from a distance, with few problems in his jurisdiction and a strong communication line to the county clerk and recorder. His perspective changed when he was invited to attend a meeting with election officials by the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA).

“Nobody trusts the news that much, so to hear firsthand what was going on in some cities and communities was an eye opener,” says Smith. The meeting also provided a forum to discuss what law enforcement can and can’t do, and what the borderline between First Amendment rights and criminal behavior might be.

The answer to this question can vary from state to state, says Smith, and pursuing offenders can be complicated if threats originate from anonymous social media accounts. But one tangible outcome of these discussions was drawing attention to the fact that state election laws can have sections regarding criminal conduct in the context of elections.

“In most states, law enforcement typically deals in criminal code and traffic code,” says Smith. “That’s where most of our work is done, and we may not be aware of other sections of statute.”

Kelly, who worked in law enforcement before he came to elections, wants to take a comprehensive approach to this problem.
Justin Smith.jpeg
The CSSE is working to make law enforcement aware of potential criminal violations within election codes. "The flip side is educating election officials about areas where we might be able to take criminal enforcement — and what areas we cannot, but at least help to calm the situation," says committee member Justin Smith, the Sheriff of Larimer County, Colo.
(Larimer County)

“If you're pulled over by a CHP in California, that officer has a little pocket guide in his shirt that reminds him of the commonly used vehicle code sections,” he says. He’s working with Smith and other committee members to develop templates for guides on relevant sections of election code that officers can also carry in their pockets. This will be backed up by training videos, and participation in daily briefings to street-level law enforcement, Kelly says.

Smith, who chairs NSA’s Homeland Security Committee, acknowledges that foreign actors who introduce or amplify misinformation contribute to distrust of election systems. “They don’t care if it’s the left or the right, they just want us to keep going after each other,” he says.

This is a difficult issue to address directly with agitated voters, but CSSE will include guidance for public outreach in its resources to support efforts by local election offices to bolster public trust.

Not Partisan, but Fundamental

Committee member Jonathan Bydlak, director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, describes himself as “right of center.” R Street has worked in defense of mail voting and other aspects of election reform, often in cooperation with other groups.

“We generally look for areas where we either think there isn't enough work being done, or where we can provide a perspective that is a little bit different, and needs to be,” says Bydlak. CSSE and its focus on getting law enforcement and election administrators talking to one another was a natural fit.

Bydlak is emphatic that election security and integrity are so fundamental to democracy that it would be illogical for anyone to interpret efforts to support election officials as “partisan.”

The point is hard to argue considering the large number of Republican election administrators who have been subjected to especially virulent and hateful attacks. Or the many Republican officials on the CSSE committee.

CSSE is very intentionally cross-partisan, says Danjuma. “That is not a sort of fig leaf or token presentation,” he says. Members have a wide range of perspectives and allegiances but are united around election safety and security, as are most Americans.

“This isn’t a political issue, this is a security issue,” says Barton. “Our election officials, our workers and our polling locations must be safe and secure for our democracy to stand.”

We Have Your Back

It may be beyond the capabilities of CSSE to directly address the moral injury and injustice experienced by public servants forced to defend (or protect) themselves against accusations of “crimes” they didn’t commit. But it can give the public greater insight into the challenges election officials face, which may not be well understood even in other departments of local governments.

“These are real attacks on our democracy, and we need to stand up for the public servants who have been making our democracy function for decades,” says Danjuma.
Tina Barton.jpg
Tina Barton received death threats while working as city clerk for Rochester Hills, Mich. "Election officials need support for funding, they need support for legislation, they need some basic standing operating procedures that they can agree upon to better secure workers and facilities."
(Tina Barton)

Unless voters have family members who are election volunteers, poll workers or otherwise involved in election administration, it’s unlikely that they really know what goes into the election process, says Bydlak. “The first thing that I think we can do is raise awareness and do so in a way that is not driven by motivation for some sort of specific election outcome.”

Kelly, a Republican, would like to see more elected officials speak out on the issues the CSSE is addressing, and cut short discourse that could lead to interference with democratic processes or trigger someone who is mentally unstable to act out violently. “They need to be leaders, and we need to see more of that, across the country.”

CSSE members are volunteering their time, either within the scope of their professional duties or because of deep concern about the issues the committee is addressing. Barton hopes that election officials will recognize that a collaborative, cooperative group has come together, developing and promoting resources that are meant to say, “we have your back.”

“I think that that will be incredibly comforting to election officials as they move forward into these midterms and the 2024 cycle,” she says.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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