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News / Opinion / Columns

Camden: Election worker threats undeniable

The Columbian
Published: April 3, 2024, 6:03am

Not sure if it’s a sign of the times or just of my age, but Washington has a new law that would have seemed unnecessary when I began covering politics and elections four decades ago.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law last week that makes it a felony to threaten or harass an election worker. The bill, which passed the Legislature with large bipartisan majorities, took effect the moment it was signed because, it stated, such protections for elections workers were deemed “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.”

When I became The Spokesman-Review’s political reporter in 1984 and for many years afterward, my Election Day coverage started with voting as soon as my poll site at a South Hill church opened at 7 a.m., before making the rounds at other sites to get a feel for the early turnout and voter mood.

My poll workers, some of whom had been volunteering for decades, offered early voters freshly baked treats along with a smile and an “I voted” sticker. The night ended at the courthouse, where a steady stream of other volunteers drove in sealed boxes of ballots from poll sites and county workers kept their fingers crossed that the computer wouldn’t go down.

It was a system that benefited from a combination of volunteers and county workers, many of whom had other duties for much of the year outside of Election Day. The possibility that anyone would give them a modicum of grief, let alone threaten them with bodily harm, was unthinkable.

Support for elections workers seemed to remain strong after the state switched to all-mail voting, even if many voters regretted the loss of their semi-annual trip to the polling station.

In the past several years, however, threats to elections workers have gone from unthinkable to undeniable. After the 2020 election, then-Secretary of State Kim Wyman and the head of the state’s elections division were both targets of threats and harassment by people who disputed the results of the presidential election.

Wyman was Washington’s only statewide elected Republican and the people questioning the results were primarily supporters of Republican President Donald Trump or others on the GOP ticket. But that didn’t seem to matter.

A recent report by the Elections and Voting Information Center said that 1 in 10 local elections officials surveyed said they have considered leaving the job over safety concerns.

Nearly 1 in 3 know of other elections officials who have quit at least in part because of those concerns, according to the survey conducted by researchers at Reed College and Portland State University.

“In the Spokane area, we’ve been fortunate to not have a lot of incidents or problems,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said. “But it’s real. Just because it hasn’t happened here doesn’t mean it won’t.”

Under the old law, threatening or harassing an elections official was the same as threatening almost anyone else, a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine or both. The new law raises that to a Class C felony, putting threatening an elections official in the same category as threatening a judge, police officer or other member of the justice system. The potential penalty is raised to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine or both.

“It’s a penalty that matches how serious this is,” Dalton said. Along with the potential for physical harm, such threats are also an effort to interfere in elections that are an essential part of democracy.

The Local Elections Officials Survey suggests that problems with potential threats and misinformation weigh heavily on many officials. Nearly two-thirds said they have trouble leaving their problems at work, and only 1 in 5 would encourage a child to pursue a career in elections administration.

Turnover among the nation’s local elections officers is about twice as high compared to previous years, with 1 in 10 considering retirement before this year’s general election and one-third planning to retire before the 2026 general election.