Protecting Election Officials and Democracy in 2022 and Beyond.
Since 2020, there has been an alarming rise in the number of election officials — the stewards of our democracy — being the subject of violence, threats and intimidation. Recently, one in six election officials have reported experiencing threats because of their jobs, and three out of four reported knowing colleagues who have experienced threats. Days away from the midterms, and a likely volatile 2024 cycle, these threats, which also extend to poll workers and voters, clearly demonstrate the weight that our words and actions carry. It’s vital that leaders and organizations understand how to communicate on these issues and are well equipped to address them to protect the integrity of our elections.
Through Clyde Group’s work for the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE), we have been able to support the development of strategies, policies and actionable practices that protect election workers and voters from violence, threats, and intimidation. We sat down with Al Schmidt, a member of CSSE, former Philadelphia City Commissioner and President and CEO of Committee of Seventy, and Noah Praetz, a partner at the Elections Group, to better understand this trend and how we can continue to properly message the reality that our elections are as safe, secure and transparent as they have ever been.
How does this election differ from previous ones?
Noah Praetz (NP): Election officials have always adapted to meet the moment – and this year they are being tested like never before. They’ve developed expertise in logistics, information technology, legal compliance, national security cyber management, public health, communications; most recently pivoting to develop skills in physical security and safety and even learning and training on deconfliction techniques. But this year, they are also installing bullet proof windows at the office, watching for tails when they drive home – often alternating routes – searching for antagonists on surveillance videos, installing Ring cameras at home, and learning to erase profiles online to prevent doxxing. Imagine any profession where this became the norm, and you can see why, for many, it is just too much.
What’s driving the change in the change in tone and attitudes towards poll workers?
Al Schmidt (AS): There is no question that lies told about the 2020 presidential election being stolen, peddled for profit or political gain by a wide network of bad-faith actors, including a former President of the United States, has created an extremely dangerous environment for our election officials and poll workers but also for our democracy. There’s at least a third of the country that has entirely bought into this narrative of stolen and compromised elections. Some of these believers have also become activists who aggressively press – and in some cases, harass or intimidate – local officials to do nonsensical things like recount ballots in elections that have already been thoroughly reviewed, audited and certified.
What do you foresee as being “hot beds” for election interference, mis/disinformation, and the spread of possible violence?
NP: The 2020 election, and the years since, provide a very clear picture of where we should be looking and where we should be protecting. I worry about the days following election day, where counting, canvassing, and auditing continue inside election offices, even as chaos may be occurring outside. I can imagine a courthouse or counting facilities succumbing to angry protesters in places where results are close, and where there are groups, already primed to distrust or dispute election results they don't like, who have created an apparatus to communicate with and inflame those crowds. We must have our emergency management and law enforcement institutions focused on reinforcing election officials where groups are already prepositioned to potentially add stressors to the situation.
What do you view as being the biggest cyber threats facing election officials, poll workers, and polling locations from domestic or international actors?
NP: I worry about continued foreign malign influence in our information networks. Adversaries, including Russia, China and Iran, will likely continue to salt our wounds as they wait to see whether we’ll tear our own foundation down. I worry that these adversaries could also decide to engage in malicious cyber activities, calculating that the rewards of our upheaval are worth their risks. Imagine our current environment if pollbooks were scrambled, websites showed wrong results, or a voting system didn’t work. Election officials are resilient and have built in backup plans. But is our country – and its candidates – ready to rally around the flag and accommodate those changes?
What policies can be implemented to protect poll workers at the federal and state level?
AS: Given this is a nationwide problem, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin in September introduced the Election Worker Protection Act, which offers a comprehensive set of resources and reforms. The law would establish threatening or intimidating election workers as a federal crime while also directing the Department of Justice to provide training resources focused on identifying and investigating such threats. But it would also establish grants for local and state governments for poll worker recruitment and training as well as their protection. Providing sufficient resources for thorough implementation of the new law would be critical if we’re serious about protecting our election workers.
What can companies and individuals do to protect election integrity and promote democratic participation?
AS: Every company should consider encouraging their employees to be involved in their communities and this includes voting and supporting the democratic process. At the Committee of Seventy, our WeVote initiative supports exactly and we've worked with hundreds of organizations reaching tens of thousands of people in recent years. The program involves nonpartisan messaging around why voting matters and how to vote, but we also encourage participants to support their local election officials and to help staff the polls themselves if they're able. Friends and family are among the most trusted messengers in our fragmented information environment, so we stress how important it is for individuals to be responsible in sharing accurate info with their networks.
There is no doubt that these threats are serious and pose a disturbing threat to the integrity of our elections. It is crucial that these threats are addressed immediately and we must remain vigilant so this pattern of abuse and threats towards election officials does not repeat itself next week.