‘Potential crisis for democracy’: Threats to election workers could spur mass retirements

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

State and local election offices fear they are set to face a wave of retirements and resignations after confronting the dual burdens of a pandemic and a rise in conspiracy-fueled threats.

A new survey of over 200 local election officials — the people responsible for running polling places, maintaining voter rolls and counting and certifying the results of elections — found that roughly one-third were either very or somewhat concerned about “being harassed on the job” or “feeling unsafe" at work during the 2020 election cycle. Nearly 4-in-10 respondents in the survey, which was conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and Bipartisan Policy Center, reported the same level of concern about “facing pressure to certify election results.”

Election workers and watchdogs say that after these officials preserved the integrity of the 2020 election despite enormous pressure from former President Donald Trump and allies, the climate could kick off a “brain drain” in their field that would pose a threat to the administration of future elections if longtime election workers are replaced by those with less experience — or by believers in the conspiracy theories about the 2020 results Trump and his allies promote.

“What is normally a fairly obscure administrative job is now one where lunatics are threatening to murder your children,” said Al Schmidt, one of the three members of Philadelphia’s city board of elections. Schmidt, a Republican, announced in January that he will not seek reelection to his post in 2023. “That is not something anyone anticipates or signs up for.”

The decentralized nature of American elections means that there is no body or agency tracking election worker retirements right now. But conversations with a half-dozen experienced officials, as well as reporting on growing vacancies in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, points to many headed for the doors.

“It's a big challenge and, I think, a potential crisis for democracy,” said Lawrence Norden, the director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center, a left-leaning think tank. “The real question is: Who replaces them when they leave?”

Retirements after an election are normal for administrators, especially after running a presidential vote. But the aftermath of the 2020 election has felt different to experienced administrators — most notably because of the threats election workers are still facing.

Schmidt said he already decided before this election to not run for another term as commissioner in 2023, but the threats he has faced since Trump attacked him “certainly confirms for me that it was the right decision.”

“I think that the big danger here is especially if those positions — which, again, are typically pretty obscure — are targeted to replace those professional election administrators with partisan political operatives whose job it is to undermine confidence” in the electoral system, Schmidt continued.

Protests have become more common as well. Florida’s local election supervisors met this week in Tampa at their semiannual conference. The conference, which sometimes delves into highly technical issues, usually attracts little attention.

This year, it attracted several dozen pro-Trump protesters complaining that election laws in Florida, which Trump carried twice, are too lax. Standing outside the downtown Tampa hotel hosting the conference, they held signs that read “Stop the Steal” and “Donald Trump won.” One shouted on a bullhorn that everyone attending the conference was “un-American” and that Florida should end mail-in voting, a decades-old practice that has long been popular and widely used among state Republicans — including Trump himself.

The effort unnerved some attendees at the conference, who talked about getting threats and witnessing a spike of conspiracy-laden phone calls from voters echoing Trump’s rhetoric about the 2020 election.

Craig Latimer, the elections supervisor for Tampa’s Hillsborough County, said there are people who just refuse to accept what happened in 2020. “People have a First Amendment right, but there’s people that are still buying into false statements that are out there about machines as well as about elections,” said Latimer, a Democrat.

The increase in threats has also caught the attention of the Department of Justice.

“We have not been blind to the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers, ranging from the highest administrators to volunteer poll workers,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a speech last week. “Such threats undermine our electoral process and violate a myriad of federal laws.”

The report from the Brennan Center and Bipartisan Policy Center calls for changes to protect election workers, including advocating for the Justice Department “to prioritize identifying, investigating, and prosecuting threats against election officials and workers” and for states to better fund security measures for workers. The report also suggested that election professionals better organize themselves to focus on educational and lobbying efforts, to give a diffuse industry more of a voice.

The think tanks also suggest structural changes that would protect election workers from partisan pressure, along with internet companies cracking down on misinformation that could harm public trust in the election system.

Election administrators are also concerned about new laws in several states that exposed election officials to more criminal and civil penalties for wrongdoing. A bipartisan pair of prominent election attorneys warned in a New York Times essay that the laws could be used to intimidate election officials or punish them for honest mistakes.

“The people that are involved in elections are civic-minded individuals who just want to be part of a democracy, to make it fair and equitable. Nobody’s there for the pay,” said Roxanna Moritz, a Democrat who recently retired early from her position as Scott County, Iowa’s chief elections official, citing a lack of support. “I think that the criminalization in these states are going to cause people to say ‘Okay, it’s time for me to leave. I could make a mistake.’”

On top of these factors, many election officials are approaching retirement age. Another recent survey of more than 850 chief election officials from the Democracy Fund and Reed College found that almost 35 percent are eligible to retire before the 2024 election, and about 45 percent of those eligible saying they’re planning to do so.

Election officials have long had concerns about refreshing the field’s aging workforce, a difficult recruiting task even under normal circumstances thanks to relatively low pay and unwieldy hours.

“I’ll confess, I don’t know what to expect in terms of the caliber of the candidates” running for local positions, said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, who noted that thus far there hasn’t been many exits by local administrators in his state. “I don’t know if the experience of 2020 made good people want to run for that job, or made them not want to run for that job.”

Gary Fineout contributed reporting from Tampa, Fla.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting