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Yes, Threats Against Election Officials (and Voters) Are Real. But the Law Is Fighting Back, Says California Election Expert

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A sign in a dimly lit City Hall passageway reads "The Voting Center is located downstairs", next to a bronze bust of a man.
A voting sign during early voting at City Hall in San Francisco on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

Concerns about the rise in political violence are reverberating from the White House to state Capitols to local elections offices.

In a pre-midterm elections speech Wednesday, President Joe Biden warned about threats to democracy and referred to the recent attack against Paul Pelosi in his San Francisco home, as part of an alleged attempt to kidnap House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta also expressed caution during a Wednesday news conference in San Francisco, urging elected officials to review their safety protocols.

"So many of us are shaken by the shocking incident involving Mr. Pelosi and are reevaluating security for elected officials, given the increased threats that we're seeing," said Bonta. "The threats are going up. Violence is going up."

So just how pervasive a problem is this?

KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, which has been closely researching and tracking harassment against elections officials. Keep reading for highlights of their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BRIAN WATT: Your research has found some folks in elected office in California — primarily women and people of color — have actually been deterred from staying in office in large part because of this climate of political violence. Tell us more about that.

KIM ALEXANDER: We've been tracking local registrars of voters in California and their decisions whether to stay or leave over the past two years. We have seen about 20% of the registrars in the state either retired following the 2020 election or they chose not to seek reelection in 2022.

Your last day to vote is November 8

The ones who have retired, though, many have stayed involved in elections and continue to be engaged just in a different capacity, and they didn't want to stay involved sometimes because of the threats and harassment that they experienced in that public position.

But there are instances of folks who've won elections against election deniers, right?

Yeah. All of the registrars of voters who did seek reelection or when their deputies sought reelection were reelected in June.

There were a couple here in Northern California that were challenged by election deniers: Shasta County, Nevada County and Yuba County. All those registrars won their reelection campaigns by wide margins.

What's the scope of these election threats over the past few years?

We've been monitoring the Department of Justice’s election threats task force. So we don't really have a benchmark to look at how this compares to the past.

But we do know that somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 threats that election officials and workers in the country received in the last year were reported to the Department of Justice. About 10% of them rise to the level of being prosecutable because they include a threat of bodily harm or death. The federal government is prosecuting those cases and investigating those cases.

There's been a lot in the media lately about people watching polls and people watching drop boxes where voters are dropping off their ballots. There's even been legal battles about this. Is this a big problem in this election?

There's an old saying about the media: "If it bleeds, it leads." It doesn't matter if you're talking about new media or traditional media or public media or commercial media or social media. All these news outlets are more interested in selling fear than they are in selling hope.

And I think that's a real problem right now because it's contributing to this sense among some that's growing about the potential for violence. I think it's getting really overstated.

There was an incident in Arizona that was very troubling with people in military tactical gear monitoring voters as they were taking their ballots to drop boxes. The League of Women Voters of Arizona filed a lawsuit to prevent that behavior, and a judge issued a court order [Tuesday] that the people that were behaving that way may not continue to do so.

So there are shocking things that happen. And a lot of times the fact that there's been a legal action taken to prevent it is not followed up on in the news.

What are some of the best practices that the organization has been looking into in order to keep election workers safe?

A lot of election officials have been collaborating with their sheriff and police departments, and those are relationships that have been established already over many years. Poll workers are getting additional training. Many people are providing deescalation training to help those who work in voting sites be prepared to deescalate a situation if someone comes in and is confrontational.

We do allow for public observation and monitoring of elections, but you need to do that within the law. And there's been a lot of effort on the part of election officials to make sure people are aware what those rules are.

One of the protections now in place in California is for election workers. What does it do exactly?

The California Voter Foundation worked with the Brennan Center to co-sponsor a new law that was signed into law this September by Governor Newsom. This new law allows election workers to enroll and address confidentiality programs, so they can keep their personal information private.

That is the kind of protection that can keep people from being able to find their home addresses and threaten them in their homes.

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