Multiple states have passed or are considering new restrictive voting rules in response to the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. There is, of course, no evidence of massive voter fraud in 2020 — and President Biden legitimately won the election — but that has not stopped unscrupulous politicians in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Florida and Iowa from considering new strict rules on absentee balloting, the ability to use a drop box, and even providing food or water to voters waiting in line.
These attacks on our democracy have received much attention. Far less noticed, however, have been provisions in these laws that penalize local election officials who administer our elections.
Iowa, in addition to limiting voter access by cutting early voting days and forbidding local election officials from mailing out absentee ballot request forms without a specific request from a voter, will now make it a crime if election workers violate the new rules. Florida has enacted a rule that limits ballot drop box availability to only during early voting hours, and provides that, “If any drop box at an early voting site is left accessible for the return of ballots outside of early voting hours, the supervisor is subject to a civil penalty of $25,000.” A Texas proposed bill would subject a local registrar to fines if the registrar fails to mail out notices demanding proof of citizenship to individuals otherwise deemed ineligible to vote. It would also criminalize election workers who “distance or obstruct the view of a [poll] watcher in a way that makes observation reasonably ineffective.” Arizona legislators want to make it a felony for an election worker to mail an early ballot to a voter who has not requested one.
Election officials were already under immense pressure during and after the 2020 election. Death threats to these officials abound. Armed protesters, angry that Donald Trump had lost Michigan, descended on the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Just this weekend, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs was given police protection after death threats stemming from the farcical election audit happening there. In Georgia, a voting machine technician was sent an animated image of a hanging noose. And it’s not just statewide, high-profile individuals who are facing these threats. Local election officials, too, have received racist, threatening messages — all because they stood up for democracy.
The predictable result? Many election officials, burned out after the 2020 election experience, are leaving their jobs.
Local election officials are the lifeblood of our voting system. They quite literally effectuate the fundamental right to vote, keeping our elections both open and secure. More qualified people should heed the call to serve our democracy.
But it is going to be a lot harder to recruit people to serve at the front lines of our elections if states threaten to penalize them with the possibility of massive fines or even jail time for not strictly following new state laws. Election administration often requires many decisions in the heat of intense political contests. The cornerstone should be protecting an individual’s right to vote while also ensuring election integrity. Both are possible simultaneously, but it will become a lot harder if local election officials are afraid to act for fear of civil or criminal liability.
These new laws are part of a troubling trend to remove authority from election officials who stand up for democracy. Local election officials know best how to serve their communities. They were the heroes of the 2020 election. It’s unfair, inappropriate and unnecessary to punish them with the possibility of fines or jail for protecting the right to vote.