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Elections Stayed Secure in 2022, but Trouble Could Return in 2024

Online chatter and ongoing harassment suggest that security concerns will persist, if not increase, ahead of the next election cycle. Resources are being offered to help election officials cope with this new reality.

Midterm voters in Arlington, Va.
(Rob Crandall/Shutterstock)
Brianna Lennon, the clerk for Boone County, Mo., works in a state where harassment and threats have not escalated to the point that local election officials fear for their safety. That doesn’t mean her office doesn’t get calls from voters who are angry about election results, just that they are likely to be upset about outcomes in other states.

Lennon, who co-hosts a national podcast on election administration, is hearing more and more about security worries. “It’s really dominating the conversation amongst election officials,” she says. “It used to be that we just talked about cybersecurity, but now we talk about physical safety.”

Midterm elections were free of the election-related violence some had feared. In part, this may have been a consequence of federal investigations in response to events on Jan. 6, which have resulted in charges against almost 1,000 individuals, including leaders of groups promoting violence.

But a midterm candidate for the New Mexico House who claimed his defeat was due to election fraud was indicted this week for conspiring with four men to shoot at the homes of county commissioners and state lawmakers in early December. No one was injured, but at one home bullets went through the walls of a bedroom where a 10-year-old girl was sleeping.

Overpreparing is an essential aspect of the culture of election administration, Lennon observes. In the post-2020 world, security — whether on election day or in the day-to-day lives of officials — “is just one more thing that we have to overprepare for.”

Nonprofit groups formed to support election officials are taking advantage of the time between now and the 2024 election to develop tools and resources to help them navigate this new era of risk.

A video from the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections outlines key actions that can help keep elections safe.

A Long Way to Go

The nonpartisan Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE) is comprised of members from election administration, law enforcement and cybersecurity. In the run-up to the midterm elections, it worked to increase communication and collaboration between these stakeholders.

CSSE produced and posted resources for both election administrators and law enforcement on its website, including guides to safer elections and election-related crimes in state election codes, violations not generally known by officers called to respond to election-related incidents. It assisted with table-top exercises to work through possible election day scenarios and produced a video depicting examples of responses to such events.

The chairman of CSSE, Neal Kelley, served as registrar of voters in Orange County, Calif., for almost two decades and, early in his career, as a police officer. Though 2022 elections were relatively quiet, he believes the committee still has a long way to go.

Intelligence, online chatter and the ongoing experience of election officials all suggest that threats will continue, if not increase, he says. “Not just in the election world, but public officials in general, whether elected officials or judges.”

Voters may have rejected candidates who ran on election denial, but that doesn’t mean resentment about 2020 doesn’t still run deep. Whatever fraud theory election deniers have embraced, their direct connection to the process is their local election official, says CSSE member Tina Barton, who received death threats while serving as the city clerk of Rochester, Mich.

“That’s the person who is catching their anger and as we get closer to the 2024 election cycle, I only see this heating up more.” CSSE is focused on safety and security, not the process of election administration, but though this scope might be narrow, the problem is large.

Bullying, harsh language and threats have permeated most states, says Barton. “It goes from veiled threats like ‘you’re not going to like what happens to you’ all the way to ‘you deserve to die’ or ‘we are going to hang you,’ and it’s wearing people down.”

Preventing Flare-Ups

The right mix of candidates, politics and tight margins could cause “smoking embers” to flare up during the upcoming election season, Kelley says. CSSE has several immediate priorities to help prevent this that build on what it learned in 2022.

These include supporting legislative efforts to protect the private information of election officials and prevent its publication on the Internet (“doxxing”), and to establish definitions for harassment and penalties for it, providing a clear way forward when law enforcement officers receive complaints. “There’s a frustration among sheriffs because they need actionable items,” says Kelley.

Additional training videos are in the works, and CSSE’s five-point plan will be expanded.

“We're going to be making a big push on in-person conferences in ‘23; we've done three in the last month,” says Kelley. “We're trying to reach law enforcement and election officials where they work and live.”

These sessions may involve table-top exercises, starting from examples of something that could happen at a polling place or election office and working through how each of the stakeholders would respond. Election officials and law enforcement are both familiar with such exercises, says Barton, but it’s not the norm to do them together.

Many states don’t yet have reference guides to penal provisions within their election laws and expanding these will be another priority.

“The states that used those were thrilled to have them at their fingertips,” Barton says. “They felt it empowered them to know what they were supposed to do, to know when something is actually a law-breaking offense and not just bad behavior.”

Strong relationships between local law enforcement and local election officials are the key to better and faster responses to threats on and before election day. Jurisdictions that don’t have this face delays in response time if they have to spend time convincing police that there is an issue to investigate, says Kelley.

“If you call 911 on election day, it’s too late.”

David Becker founded the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR) in 2016, following nearly a decade as director of election initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts. In his role as executive director, he manages the Election Official Legal Defense Network (EOLDN), formed in 2021.

David Becker.jpeg
David Becker, who manages the Election Official Legal Defense Network, says it’s a misconception that organized threats against local officials are limited to states perceived to be battle states. “Although there’s a lot of focus on those states, there’s also focus on states like Texas and California, where the statewide outcomes are not really an issue.”
(Joy Asico)
EOLDN is the brainchild of Bob Bauer, former counsel to the Obama White House, and Ben Ginsberg, former counsel to the Romney and George W. Bush campaigns. The attorneys also served as chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration established by President Obama.

The mission is broader than defending election officials in lawsuits, says Becker. “It’s really to provide any kind of legal assistance or support that election officials need to protect them from harassment — it could be affirmative, it could be defensive.”

Through a form on the EOLDN website, election officials can make a confidential request for legal assistance, which is provided pro bono through a national network of attorneys recruited by EOLDN. Assistance could involve help with getting a protection order against harassment or threats or advice on dealing with weaponized public records requests.

“It’s even included pairing election officials with criminal defense attorneys when there have been really frivolous and reprehensible efforts to bully and intimidate election officials by threatening to arrest them,” says Becker.

Recruitment of lawyers is ongoing, as more and more are needed to respond to requests for help. It’s a misconception that threats against local officials are limited to states perceived to be battle states, says Becker. “Although there’s a lot of focus on those states, there’s also focus on states like Texas and California, where the statewide outcomes are not really an issue.”

Harassment is also crossing state borders, Becker says, and the approach is “holistic.” There are threats to spouses, children, families, staff and facilities. “We see surveillance — often illegal surveillance — following election officials from their place of work to their home, cyber surveillance to determine where they live and what their families might look like.”

These are accompanied by frivolous and duplicate records requests, followed by mischaracterization of material received in response to such requests to stir further controversy. This last strategy has bedeviled and overwhelmed many election offices.

While he can’t speak to specific situations involving record requests due to EOLDN confidentiality rules, Becker has heard that assistance from lawyers in its network has made a difference.
Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters faces felony charges for her alleged role in facilitating the download of data from voting machines. Her former elections manager agreed to testify against Peters to avoid a prison sentence.
(Hyoung Chang/TNS)

Victims of a Grift

As Becker sees it, there’s no doubt that the situation today is better than it was three months ago. Voters rejected conspiracy theorists. Election officials managed a remarkably smooth election with high turnout.

Elections are professionally run, bipartisan, transparent and verifiable. There are more paper ballots, more audits and more court review of elections than ever before.

Even so, as Becker crosses the country to work with election officials, he is encountering a phenomenon that is working against these accomplishments. Although the overall percentage of people who refuse to believe elections are secure and trustworthy is going down, those who remain are more and more dug in.

“Those are the people who are coming by the offices of election officials, who are spending all of their time every day trying to make election officials’ jobs harder, sometimes threatening or harassing, sometimes asking frivolous, repetitive questions based on misinformation.”

Becker sees these individuals as victims of a “grift.” Many are sincerely disappointed that their candidate lost and are susceptible to misinformation that traps them in delusions about what took place — and to being enlisted as donors. Ironically, at times the support they provide is used to fuel attacks against officials in counties the former president won by a large margin.

EOLDN also provides pro bono communications support to election officials, which they can request through an online form. It has retained communications professionals who can assist with crisis communications, communication planning and beating back disinformation with correct information about elections.
Though most candidates who campaigned around 2020 election grievances conceded losses without incident, Arizona Republican Kari Lake filed a lawsuit contesting her defeat. The case was dismissed by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, but Lake has said she will appeal.
(Justin Sullivan/TNS)

Boiling the Ocean

The degree to which election officials have been targeted and exhausted can’t be overstated, Becker says. Legal and communications support are important, but more is needed. He shares CSSE’s view that penalties are needed for those who threaten and attack election officials, in person or online.

Election offices are chronically underfunded. Yet following the 2020 election, more than a dozen states passed laws forbidding private donations or grants to support the work of election officials, dollars that played a major role in its success. States inclined to enact such legislation may also impose new requirements that come with costs, such as 24-hour monitoring of drop boxes. Firm federal and state commitments to support election offices are vital.

This is a year when local governments, as they're looking at their budgets, should ask what needs to be done to keep local election officials safe from both outside and inside threats, says Tina Barton. “Do they need more cameras that show who’s coming and going? Do they need to add more passcode locks?”

Since 2020, election officials have pointed to public statements about the integrity of American elections from leadership as especially powerful ways to calm the waters, but an unexpectedly large number of public servants in high office have either remained silent or stood behind claims of fraud.
Neal Kelley: "If I start a neighborhood watch program in my community and I don't have any break-ins for a few weekends, that doesn't mean I abandon the neighborhood watch program."
Becker is “cautiously optimistic” that some relief could come if those whose actions and statements have created an unprecedented climate of hostility and risk are held accountable. It’s one thing for statewide constitutional officers such as Brad Raffensperger or Jocelyn Benson to face pushback in the context of an election, he says, but the anger directed at local officials and even volunteers is something new.

There’s not as much breathing space between now and the 2024 election season as it might seem. Primaries are about 12 months away, Barton observes, and preparations for them will begin months in advance.

“Sooner than not election officials are going to get busy, and they may not have time for education sessions,” she says. “This year, it's critical for us to get information into their hands.”

The scale of the challenge could be compared to “boiling the ocean,” says Neal Kelley. “But we're going to do our best to get the word out.”
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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