Congress needs to act now to protect election workers

The Homeland Security Committee recently held a hearing on current and ongoing threats to elections. Much of the discussion centered on threats of violence against election workers, and there was considerable agreement from the diverse and experienced panel of witnesses about how to address the issue. Congress should heed their words and act swiftly to protect our election workers and the elections they administer.

Threats to election administrators are widespread. Given the pervasiveness and severity of these threats, many election workers are leaving the profession for fear of the violence that may await them for simply doing their job. Fortunately, there are steps that would ensure their protection, and in turn, protect the integrity of elections overall.

Importantly, control of elections should remain at the sub-national level. The decentralized nature of election administration is a valuable safeguard against any kind of election interference. Each jurisdiction is unique, and a decentralized approach allows localities to create norms and practices that best address their specific needs and the current threat environment. Though there are certain things that many or all jurisdictions do similarly, such as certification requirements for voting machines, it is important that they arrive at their preferred practices independently. While the federal government should not dictate election policy to states and localities, it can empower them to employ the practices that best suit them.

Protecting election workers while respecting the decentralized nature of elections can be accomplished through three mutually reinforcing changes.

Information Sharing with Local Law Enforcement

As highlighted by one of the witnesses, most election workers first share threats they receive with the local police—not the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Therefore, a great first step would be to engage in work similar to the ongoing efforts of the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections (CSSE), and acknowledge that local law enforcement officers need to be aware of the threats facing election workers in order to help prevent and respond to them. This can be accomplished through training, better communication and regular briefings. Additionally, the DOJ task force that combats threats to election workers should also bring in local law enforcement to facilitate effective protection and engage in greater information sharing.

Election Worker Threat Training

Election workers need training on identifying and responding to intimidation and threats of physical violence. In many cases, they would benefit from upgrades to physical security through things like outdoors lights, camera surveillance, bulletproofing offices, panic buttons, key card access and other similar features. These necessary safeguards require resources that Congress can provide. There was agreement from the witnesses that greater resources are essential to the future security of elections. However, it was also noted that the money that is available often comes with too many strings attached or via a bureaucratic process that serves as an impediment to receiving the funds. Therefore, when Congress allocates resources, it should do so in a way that makes receiving them quick and easy, allowing jurisdictions to spend them in a way that best suits their own needs.

Using CISA

The Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) offers a full suite of services to help election workers provide cyber and physical security to elections. These resources are designed to protect election infrastructure, such as voting machines, but can benefit election workers too. For example, multi-factor authentication for protected election spaces and physical security assessments can ensure a bad actor does not have access to election workers or systems. However, as noted in the hearing, there is a backlog creating delays in the agency’s delivery of services to states and localities. As such, Congress should empower CISA through greater resources and clear priorities to give local jurisdictions the help they need in a timelier manner, especially as the 2022 election cycle is already upon us.

The increased politicization of election administration jeopardizes the safety of election workers and the integrity of the elections themselves. This has the potential to undermine our entire democratic system. However, Congress can combat this by acting on the advice of the witnesses at this hearing and taking the measures mentioned here as soon as possible.

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Ryan Williamson
My name is Ryan Williamson, and I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University. Prior to this, I...

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