During the 2020 presidential contest, election workers had to navigate a host of new challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As if that wasn't enough of a burden on civil servants, temporary workers and volunteers, they also faced heightened threats from partisan extremists.
And now, even 10 months after the election, officials are still at risk of physical and verbal assault, as well as new rules that limit their authority.
To help protect election workers from these intimidations, the Center for Election Innovation and Research announced Wednesday the launch of a bipartisan initiative to provide pro bono legal assistance and advice. The Election Official Legal Defense Network is led by David Becker, executive director of CEIR; Bob Bauer, former White House counsel during the Obama administration; and Ben Ginsberg, counsel to the George W. Bush campaign and Republican candidates.
Local and state election workers, from any jurisdiction in the country, can contact the legal defense network via an online form or a 24-hour hotline to request legal help at no cost. The network is also actively recruiting lawyers to grow its outreach and assistance to election officials.
"It's very important for this project going forward to send a clear message to election officials that what they do is absolutely critical for democracy," Ginsberg said. "We will do anything that we can, with the help of our volunteer lawyers ... to help out in any untoward attempts to intimidate and influence elections."
This year, new laws have been enacted by Republican-led Legislatures in Iowa, Georgia, Florida and Texas that prevent election officials from expanding voter access, like they did during last year's pandemic election. For instance, these states now have rules preventing election workers from proactively sending voters mail ballot applications, unless the voter has explicitly requested one.
Other recently enacted laws could penalize election officials with hefty fines or jail time for technical infractions of election rules, like opening a polling place late or leaving a ballot drop box unsupervised. Some states have also given more authority to partisan poll watchers, which could lead to increased tensions during elections and put the burden on election administrators to mitigate any issues.
Bauer and Ginsberg fear these types of laws could have a chilling effect on election officials, preventing them from carrying out their duties and impacting the integrity of elections.
"What we are seeing developing now is a huge step backward from a focus on professionalized election administration to a heavy level of political interference in the work of trained election professionals," Bauer said.
Brian Corley, supervisor of elections for Pasco County, Fla., said during a press call announcing the legal defense network that he and his colleagues have been subjected to a deluge of threats during and since the 2020 election.
"I can tell you that my staff was called racial slurs, not just once or twice — once or twice is already too many — we're talking 30, 40, 50 times. I had a staff member that was threatened to be shot, threatened to be beaten," Corley said. "I was called an enemy of the state, part of the deep state conspiracy, and that I was pulling for Joe Biden. What was my crime? Encouraging voters to consider voting by mail during a pandemic."
Corley said he also had to contact the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI after people showed up at his house to threaten him.
The continued intimidation of election workers this year has also led many to resign from their positions, which could spell staffing shortages for upcoming elections. Michael Winn, chief deputy clerk for Harris County, Texas, said during the press call that many of his colleagues have resigned recently over these issues.
"This is a national problem that needs to be addressed head on. This is not a set of isolated incidents or just the byproduct of a particularly complex and difficult election," Bauer said. "This has now become a concern for the electoral process."
Through the legal defense network, the co-chairs hope to provide election officials with the support system they need to mitigate these issues. Whether an administrator is threatened by someone or has concerns about a new law, they can contact one of the volunteer attorneys for assistance.
The Justice Department also announced in July the formation of a task force to address the increased threats against election workers.
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While some states are still dealing with the aftermath of the 2020 election, others are focused on high-stakes local contests this year.
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Three in five Americans believe it's more important to ensure that all voters get to vote than it is to make sure nobody who's ineligible casts a ballot, a new poll finds, although there's an enormous partisan split on those priorities.
The same survey, however, revealed a solidly bipartisan degree of confidence among three-quarters of Americans that elections in their own states are being run fairly and securely.
The results, out Tuesday from NBC News, are the latest evidence of the complex and sometimes polarized views the electorate holds about the bedrock institution of democracy.
While 87 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents say "making sure that everyone who wants to vote can do so" is a top priority, 77 percent of Republicans say "making sure that no one votes who is not eligible to vote" is more important.
That fundamental disagreement, of course, reflects the continued partisan divide over the integrity of the 2020 election, fueled by the unprecedented and unfounded allegations by Donald Trump that his second term as president was stolen by fraud. His false allegations have fueled the drive by Republican legislators around the country to enact stricter voting laws that Democrats see as designed to suppress the vote — particularly targeting people of color.
As those bills keep advancing, though, 59 percent of Republicans — along with 85 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of independents — say they are confident their states can already administer elections where everyone eligible may cast a ballot and the results are tabulated accurately.
But the poll did reveal a sharp GOP split based on where people live. In states Trump carried, 76 percent of Republicans view their own elections as free and fair. In states carried by President Biden, that same number plunged to 39 percent.
The poll was conducted by telephone April 17-20 and has a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.
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The sprawling Republican effort to make voting more difficult has been derailed for the first time by a Democratic governor.
Laura Kelly of Kansas has vetoed two bills, one curbing the number of ballots third parties may collect and deliver and the other giving the Legislature total control over election rules. Both were drafted in response to developments in other states last year — decisions by courts and governors to ease access to the ballot during the pandemic, and Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread fraud had robbed him of a second presidential term.
The measures now return to the capital, where both have more than enough support for a veto override in the Senate but appear to be a handful of votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. Kansas' 2021 legislative session lasts three more weeks.
While Georgia has been the focus of this year's intense nationwide fight over election legislation, in part because it was one of the purple states key to President Biden's win, the battle is also being fought in plenty of states Trump carried — with new curbs already enacted in Iowa and Montana and steadily advancing in Texas and Florida.
But the GOP holds all the levers of lawmaking power in all of them. Kansas is one of eight states with Democratic governors and Republican statehouses. Biden took 42 percent there last fall, only the sixth time since World War II when the Democratic nominee got more than two of every five votes.
This got the state's GOP agitated and fueled conspiracy theories — many about cheating at the hands of so-called "ballot harvesters" — that Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has labored to tamp down. He says voting in 2020 was "free and fair."
One of the vetoed measures would take Kansas off the roster of 26 states that permit voters to entrust anyone they like to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Both political parties and various campaign organizations use such laws to collect envelopes from sympathetic voters — mainly the elderly, poor and disabled as well as people living in remote areas such as Indian reservations.
But Republicans, fueled by Trump, have turned against the practice with a vengeance in recent years, arguing without much evidence that it encourages fraud. (The biggest such case of cheating, by far, involved a 2018 GOP congressional campaign in North Carolina.) The Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Arizona's curbs on third-party collection amounts of racially discriminatory voter suppression.
The Kansas bill would limit to 10 the number of ballots anyone could deliver, and also stiffen signature-match requirements on mail-in forms.
"Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud," the governor said in a statement on Friday. "This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to disenfranchise Kansans, making it difficult for them to participate in the democratic process, not to stop voter fraud."
The other bill she vetoed would prevent her from changing election laws or procedures by executive order, and would bar the secretary of state from negotiating any settlements of election-related lawsuits without approval from the Legislature. But Kelly decreed no such alterations to voting procedures in 2020 and none were mandated in the state by the courts — putting Kansas in a distinct minority of just 16 states where neither thing happened in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
In her veto message, Kelly warned such a law could imperil the business climate in the state, as more and more companies have spoken out this spring against legislation that would curb ballot access.
The bill would respond, however, to the most prominent recent case of election malfeasance in Kansas, by requiring a brick-and-mortar residential address for all registered voters. The congressional career of Republican Steve Watkins came to an abrupt end after one term in 2020, partly after it was revealed he'd listed his home as a UPS store so he could vote illegally for a friend running for the city council in Topeka.
Kelly is running for a second term but is seen as one of the most electorally vulnerable governors in 2022.
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