Election Officials Under Attack: How to Protect Administrators and Safeguard Democracy

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.

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.

Four overlapping areas of concern that threaten the integrity of election administration in the United States were identified. 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.

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