In the past 12 months, American election officials have been heralded for their courage and commitment in carrying out the most logistically challenging election in modern times—with record turnout, no less. They have also been attacked as villains by those who believe the Big Lie, that the election was somehow stolen from then President Donald Trump. Election officials—who before 2020 had been largely ignored by the Twittersphere and conspiracy theorists—became the targets of thousands of false accusations, protests at their workplaces, and even harassment and threats.
Such mistreatment is now taking a new and possibly even more sinister form. Legislation in several states proposes to strip election officials of their power to act on behalf of voters and to criminalize various actions they might take in the course of performing their duties. These bills add the danger of arrest and prosecution to already challenging working conditions. They should be beaten back by all who are committed to preserving American democracy.
The recently passed law in Georgia is just one example. The law has rightly been criticized for its suppressive provisions, such as one that makes it a crime for volunteers to provide in-person voters with water, even when they’ve been waiting in line for hours. Less noticed are provisions that take key powers away from election officials. SB 202 removes Georgia’s secretary of state—who stood up to Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 results—from the position of chair of the state election board and turns control of the board over to the state legislature. That newly constituted board is in turn given more power to intervene in the activity of local election boards, including by removing and replacing local board members. Reasonable people can disagree as to what is the best structure of a state election board, but all should be opposed to retaliating against an office for its holder’s refusal to bend to inappropriate and extreme political pressure.
Other bills targeting election officials and workers have been introduced in at least seven states. In many cases, the new bills threaten these workers with criminal prosecution for conduct undertaken while performing their jobs. In March, for example, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill creating a slew of new crimes related to election officials’ work, including a catchall “failure to perform duties.” The law was enacted just days after threats to local election officials in her state had escalated beyond name-calling and online abuse: in early March, a live pipe bomb was found in a polling place open for a local election.
In other states, legislatures are considering bills that would criminalize certain actions that election workers might take—in some cases, even if they did so by mistake. In Texas, a recently introduced bill would make it a crime for an election worker to give a regular ballot to someone who is entitled only to a provisional ballot. Another would make it a felony to give a ballot application to a voter who didn’t ask for one. And a third bill under consideration creates civil and criminal penalties for election officials who knowingly fail to cancel a noncitizen’s voter registration immediately upon receipt.
In Arizona, an election official tried to accommodate voters during the COVID-19 pandemic by sending ballots to all registered voters for the state’s Democratic presidential primary election but was stopped by a superior court judge. State legislators then introduced a bill that would not only ban such action in the future but make it a crime punishable by up to 2.5 years in prison.
All of these bills share a common purpose: to threaten the independence of election workers whose main job should be to ensure fair elections free from political or other interference. Their introduction and passage have the effect of maligning these workers to the people of their states.
Full-time administrators, who do stressful and demanding work with little support, were already resigning in record numbers after the threats they faced in the 2020 election. Adding “potential criminal” to the job description is unlikely to keep those who have been wavering about staying on or attract newcomers interested in upholding the United States’ democratic system.
As 2020 made clear, the American democratic experiment of the last 250 years rests in no small part on the integrity of election officials and their commitment to free and fair elections. Instead of penalizing these officials for their good work, state legislators should focus on productive measures for improving election security and access to the ballot. Indeed, many state lawmakers have introduced bills that would help election officials better serve voters and American democracy, with measures such as expanded voter options and post-election audits to increase public confidence in election results. Such legislation can help the country bury the Big Lie and protect election workers and the American democratic system they serve.