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Georgia First in the Nation to Require Police Training in Election Law

There are penal provisions in every state’s election codes. Most officers don’t know that they exist.

People standing in line outside a polling place.
Early voting in Miami during the 2020 general election. Election officials have greater uncertainty about safety during the November election, but resources have been created to help them prepare.
(David Santiago/TNS)
In Brief:
  • The climate of distrust has not calmed down since 2020, so election officials have had to strategize about security.

  • Some groups are facilitating better communication between election offices and local law enforcement.

  • Georgia is the first state to develop mandatory training for police on the penal provisions in its election code.

  • Chris Harvey had worked in law enforcement for decades and been an investigator for Georgia’s secretary of state when he was asked to take the post of chief election official back in 2015. After holding the job during what he calls the “craziest six years in Georgia’s election history,” he returned to the realm of law enforcement. He’s using what he learned to help police and election officials prepare for November.

    In his new role as deputy director of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, Harvey has implemented training that outlines the obligations and duties of law enforcement under the state’s election codes. Last month, the council made Georgia the first state to require such curriculum as part of mandatory police training.

    The controversies that arose during and after the 2020 election are still alive, and threats and harassment have increased as the 2024 contest approaches. A recent survey of local election officials by the Brennan Center found that more than half are concerned about the safety of their staff and colleagues; 90 percent have worked to increase security over the past four years.

    Harvey is a member of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE), a group created to build closer working relations between election administrators and law enforcement. He wanted to be sure that officers in his state were well-versed in their authority around elections, including dealing with poll watchers, self-appointed observers and election officials, as well as their limits.

    “The worst thing that can happen is for a police officer to respond to a scene, not know what their authority is, and not know what the laws are regulating that incident,” Harvey says. For example, Georgia law allows unpermitted, concealed carry of handguns, but forbids bringing a gun into a polling place.

    The first step in making similar training possible in other states is pulling together the relevant sections of their election codes, a project CSSE and its partners have undertaken.
    Closeup of two people visibly carrying guns strapped to their sides.
    An open carry rally at the Texas Capitol. Only about 1 in 4 states completely prohibit guns at polling places. Georgia allows concealed carry of handguns (no permit required) but training developed for Georgia’s police officers underscores that its election code forbids guns at polling places.
    (Erich Schlegel/TNS)

    Reference Guides

    Law enforcement responsibilities regarding elections vary from state to state. For the most part, they are almost unknown to police. Harvey says he can guarantee those in his state have never read the statutes in the state’s election code that are specific to law enforcement.

    This mattered less before elections and election officials operated under a cloud of manufactured distrust. Responding to the altered situation, CSSE has been distributing pocket reference guides for each state that describe the key penal provisions in its election laws, as resources for law enforcement and election officials alike.

    Kathy Boockvar, who served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of state during the 2020 election, has been leading the creation of the guides, crosschecking them with lawyers and state officials. Only a handful remain to be completed, and she expects them all to be done sometime in August.

    “The demand for these guides has been phenomenal,” Boockvar says. “Whether it’s law enforcement, election officials, district attorneys or nonprofits, folks who become aware of them have reached out to ask if their state is done, and if it isn’t, can their state be next.”

    Georgia was among the first states to have a reference guide, and Harvey sees it as the “textbook” for his course. The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training has asked him for a white paper that could help other states to develop their own training.

    CSSE members are also available to fly out to jurisdictions to provide training assistance. This is a critical window for this kind of activity, says Tina Barton, CSSE vice chair. By September, election offices will begin to move completely into election mode. “We are working against the clock right now, and the clock is not our friend,” she says.

    Shifting Scenarios

    CSSE’s “Five Steps to Safer Elections” can facilitate conversations between election officials and local law enforcement, says Boockvar. These include guidelines and scenarios for tabletop exercises that give them opportunities to practice how they would respond to events such as threats to election workers or protests that threaten to boil over at polling places or counting rooms. “I wish none of this were necessary,” Boockvar says.

    New scenarios for these exercises are being developed on an ongoing basis, Barton says, taking into account what’s being reported in the media or developments on the ground. “We’ve added in swatting, we’ve added in unknown substances,” Barton says. There’s a scenario in which a disruption breaks out when a non-citizen attempts to vote.

    Barton knows what it’s like to be traumatized in the line of duty. She received numerous threats while serving as the city clerk for Rochester Hills, Mich., in 2020, including one serious enough to prompt federal prosecutors to charge the man who made it. On July 9, he was sentenced to 14 months in prison, to be followed by two years of supervised probation.

    The fact that CSSE members are available to fly out to help with training and tabletop exercises has been reassuring to those who feel vulnerable, Boockvar says. Federal resources are also available, including the FBI’s election threats task force. Election security advisers are stationed in each of the 10 regions covered by the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA).

    “If people are not in touch with their CISA regional advisers, that’s something they should absolutely do that could have impact between now and November,” Boockvar says. “Those folks can help identify gaps in their security — if they don’t know who their CISA rep is, they can contact CSSE and we can connect them.”

    Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, chair of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, offers an overview of its “Five Steps to Safer Elections.”

    The Role Police Can Play

    Harvey, the Georgia official, is aware that historically the presence of law enforcement at polling places hasn’t always been a positive, sometimes associated more with intimidation of voters than their security. He recognizes there are also practical limits preventing police from having a presence in every precinct. “Nobody thinks that’s a good idea,” he says. “Frankly, there aren’t enough cops to do that even if they wanted to.”

    But it makes sense for election officials to have stronger relations with law enforcement, and not just because of safety issues. Harvey sees a lot of similarities between the two groups.

    “They’re underappreciated, they’re underpaid, there aren’t enough of them, people take them for granted and only notice them when they do something wrong,” he says. “The funny thing is, both are generally fine with that — they don’t want to be front and center.”
    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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