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Election Officials Under Attack

How to Protect Administrators

Al Schmidt, the Republican city commissioner of Philadelphia, might seem an unlikely lightning rod for the 2020 election. The married father of three, described by local media as a “bespectacled” bureaucrat, is one of three commissioners responsible for overseeing election-related affairs for the city. A decades-long Republican, he prided himself on bringing transparency to Philadelphia’s election processes.

Threats against Schmidt and his board of elections colleagues began before Election Day, November 3, 2020. About a week prior, someone left an ominous phone message stating that the board members were “the reason why we have the Second Amendment.” Shortly after that, police arrested two men in Philadelphia “after receiving an FBI tip that they were making threats against the Pennsylvania Convention Center,” where ballots were being counted. The men were armed with “two loaded semi-automatic Beretta pistols, one semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle, and ammunition” at the time of the arrest.

In the days after Pennsylvania was called for Joe Biden, Schmidt appeared in the media to defend the integrity of the election. President Donald Trump and his campaign called out Schmidt and members of his staff. Stalkers tracked down the cell phone numbers of Schmidt and a staff member, who is Jewish, which “ignited . . . [a] wave of menacing and often anti-Semitic attacks.”

Schmidt and his family received death threats. One text message, which mentioned his wife and children, read, “You lied. You a traitor. Perhaps 75cuts and 20bullets will soon arrive.” His wife received the following threats via email the next morning: “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT,” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. TREASONOUS SCHMIDTS.” A 24-hour security detail remained at Schmidt’s and his parents’ houses well into 2021. For their safety, his wife and children left their home after the election.

Al Schmidt’s is not an exceptional case. Around the country, election officials have been under attack in the last year. Long used to staying in the background, they have now found themselves cast as villains, scapegoated for election outcomes that some politicians and voters did not like.

The most troubling and impactful villainization of election officials in the last year has come from some of America’s political leaders. Many have pointed to President Trump’s attempt to delegitimize the 2020 election results as “rigged” — and the “Stop the Steal” movement he inspired — as the reason for targeting election officials. But the problem goes far deeper than one man.

In several states, party leaders have censured and replaced officials who insisted on telling the truth about the security and accuracy of the election. Legislators have introduced bills that would impose criminal penalties on election officials and workers for taking steps like proactively sending mail ballot applications to voters or, under certain circumstances, purchasing advertisements about upcoming elections on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook. Finally, and most troublingly for the future of our democracy, state legislatures across the nation have taken steps to strip election officials of the power to run, count, and certify elections, consolidating power in their own hands over processes intended to be free of partisan or political interference.

All of this represents a mortal danger to American democracy, which cannot survive without public servants who can freely and fairly run our elections. We must ensure that they feel not only safe but also supported and appreciated for their vital efforts.

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What Can Be Done?

Over the past few months, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation explored this question, interviewing and hosting conversations with nearly three dozen election officials and over 30 experts in democracy, election administration and technology, cybersecurity, disinformation, international elections, behavioral science, and criminal procedure. We identified four overlapping areas of concern that threaten the integrity of election administration in the United States. Each one represents a separate section of this report: violent threats against election workers and their families; disinformation about election administration; partisan and political interference; and challenges to keeping and recruiting talented workers committed to fairness in elections.

We summarize some of the most important findings and recommendations in this report below:

Finding 1: Violent threats against election workers reached an alarming level in 2020 and continue in 2021.

A survey of election officials commissioned by the Bren-nan Center and conducted by Benenson Strategy Group this spring found that one in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern.

Key Solutions:

  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) should create an election threats task force to work with federal, state, and local partners to prioritize identifying, investigating, and prosecuting threats against election officials and
  • States should pass new laws and appropriate funds to provide greater personal security for election officials and workers. Such measures should include providing
    greater protection of personally identifiable information, grants to purchase home intrusion detection systems, and funds for training and education related to maintaining greater personal security.
  • States should prioritize implementing processes to coordinate swift investigation and, where appropriate, prosecution of those responsible for threats to election workers.

Finding 2: Disinformation has made election officials’ jobs more difficult and more dangerous.

In 2020, political actors ramped up the lies about election processes to try to influence election outcomes, often on social media. This disinformation has indelibly changed the lives and careers of election officials. Indeed, 78 percent of election officials surveyed by the Brennan Center said that social media, where mis- and disinformation about elections both took root and spread, has made their job more difficult; 54 percent said they believe that it has made their jobs more dangerous. Internet and media companies have a great deal of work to do to stem the amplification of disinformation. Here, we list a few key steps that they, along with the federal and state governments, can take to empower election officials in this struggle.

Key Solutions:

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), working in conjunction with others — including the U.S. Vote
    Foundation, the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EI-ISAC), the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), and state and national election official associations — should facilitate the creation of a directory of the more than 8,000 election officials who are authoritative sources on the elections they administer. Internet companies should work with officials in those organizations to correct falsehoods and better ensure accurate content.
  • States should clarify rules that govern party-appointed monitors and require training and accountability. In 2020, some party-appointed monitors who served as observers before, during, and after Election Day became sources of disinformation, at times unwittingly.
  • Internet companies — namely, social media platforms and search engines — should develop and consistently apply transparent rules that respond to the problem of repeat mis- and disinformation spreaders, including prominent users. In severe cases, platforms should automatically delay the publication of posts, providing time to review them before countless users have a chance to see them.

Find­ing 3: Elec­tion offi­cials increas­ingly face pres­sure to prior­it­ize partisan interests over a fair, demo­cratic process.

The notori­ous recor­ded phone call during which Pres­id­ent Trump pres­sured Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger to “find 11,780 votes . . . because we won the state” is only the most well-known and most flag­rant effort to pres­sure an elec­tion offi­cial in 2020 to prior­it­ize partisan interests over a fair demo­cratic process. In our discus­sions with elec­tion offi­cials, many shared their own stor­ies of partisan actors attempt­ing to inter­fere with the conduct of the elec­tion or pres­sure them to favor candid­ates of a partic­u­lar party.

Key Solu­tions:

  • States should explore struc­tural changes to elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion to insu­late elec­tion offi­cials from polit­ical inter­fer­ence, includ­ing changes that estab­lish a protec­ted scope of author­ity for elec­tion offi­cials over­count­ing and certi­fy­ing elec­tions and guar­an­tee a minimum level of fund­ing. Citizen-sponsored ballot initi­at­ives may be required to make these changes.
  • Elec­tion offi­cials should develop a robust code of ethics to help guide discre­tion­ary decision-making and avoid poten­tial conflicts of interest.
  • States should ensure that elec­tion offi­cials have adequate legal repres­ent­a­tion to defend against polit­ic­ally motiv­ated lawsuits and invest­ig­a­tions, and elec­tion offi­cial asso­ci­ations should cultiv­ate and organ­ize pro bono legal assist­ance to the extent that states fail to do so.

Find­ing 4: Despite their found­a­tional import­ance to our demo­cratic system, local elec­tion offi­cials carry an unsus­tain­able work­load compared to other profes­sional staff.

Large numbers of elec­tion offi­cials have resigned in the past year, rais­ing alarm bells. But the wave of depar­tures could soon turn into a tsunami. As of 2020 almost 35 percent of local elec­tion offi­cials were eligible to retire by the 2024 elec­tion, and it is not clear who will replace them, nor whether those will­ing to take the job in the future will share the commit­ment to free and fair elec­tions that was so crit­ical in 2020. While elec­tion offi­cials cited many reas­ons for leav­ing the field, the unsus­tain­able work­load came up repeatedly in our inter­views.

Key Solu­tions:

  • State and local elec­tion offi­cials should adopt creat­ive staff­ing solu­tions, includ­ing estab­lish­ing rela­tion­ships with colleges and univer­sit­ies, to ease work burdens and create a talent pool for future recruit­ment.
  • State legis­lat­ors should consol­id­ate elec­tions so that they occur concur­rently rather than repeatedly through­out the year.
  • Local elec­tion offi­cials should use exist­ing profes­sional networks (such as state and national elec­tion offi­cial asso­ci­ations) to improve work­ing condi­tions and to better empower elec­tion offi­cials to impact elec­tion policy. They should also hire staff to coordin­ate with these networks and focus on educa­tion, lobby­ing, and commu­nic­a­tions.
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