Early last year, Fulton County election officials dispatched a series of internal emails to top county executives asking for police protection for some election workers dealing with a barrage of threats and harassment sparked by the 2020 presidential election’s outcome.

The Fulton election officials alerted the county that the poll workers were being harassed, both at work and at home. But county officials ultimately decided not to provide the requested protection, which would have cost from $25 to $30 an hour, because a couple of the workers did not live in Fulton, the county’s former elections director, Rick Barron, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Barron’s last day on the job was April 1.  

The Fulton case is extreme, but it illustrates that poll workers are essentially on their own  when dealing with verbal and physical attacks–as well as any allegations of election-related misconduct, legal experts and elections officials say.

Statewide, election workers’ personal vulnerability, and the potential for electoral misconduct accusations, will intensify as Georgia, a key swing state, heads into the all-important midterm election season, with primaries scheduled for May 24. 

The magnitude of the problem hasn’t escaped those who oversee Georgia’s elections.

“We can’t run elections without the bread-and-butter, which are poll workers–and so the counties and the state need to really do everything we can to make sure our poll workers feel like they’re valued and protected,” Sara Tindall Ghazal, a member of Georgia’s State Elections Board, told Atlanta Civic Circle. Ghazal is the policy director for the state House of Representatives’ Minority Caucus.

“There’s so much more scrutiny of poll workers, as well as policies and procedures,” Ghazal said. “It’s hard enough to recruit poll workers under normal circumstances–and the circumstances are no longer what I would call normal.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger himself experienced harassment from disgruntled voters after upholding Georgia’s 2020 presidential election outcome, resulting in former President Donald Trump’s defeat. That decision sparked death threats against both himself and his family. 

But when Raffensperger was asked whether counties could recruit enough poll workers for the 2022 elections in light of the harassment many received last year, he replied, “I’m not concerned about the poll workers,” at an Atlanta Press Club event on Feb. 10, saying they attend a poll-worker training and take an oath to follow the law.

Days later, Raffensperger, who is running for re-election in a crowded Republican primary, called on state lawmakers to increase protections for election workers by stationing more police officers at polling places, early voting locations, and county elections offices handling absentee ballots. 

“Georgia has become the center of the election universe, and this year we are going to have hard-fought campaigns that are watched around the country, and every indication is that we are going to have close races,” Raffensperger said in a Feb. 14 statement on the secretary of state’s website. 

“With that environment, it only makes sense to provide additional resources for election security so that everyone can have confidence in the results,” he added.

But the state legislature did not pass any laws to increase legal protections or allocate funding for poll workers’ security, instead leaving it to the counties, in this year’s session, which concluded April 4.

Who protects poll workers?

Confidence in the voting process is one thing. Confidence in whether election workers will be safe from physical or political harm is another, say county elections officials.

“It is unclear what protections we have,” Milton Kidd, Douglas County’s elections director, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “I have routinely asked the secretary of state’s office what is the criteria that an office that is accused of malfeasance is going to be judged upon. I’ve gotten no answer.”

Kidd has seen over the last two years how devastating unrelenting threats against election workers can be. Shaye Moss, whom he trained several years ago, is one of the poll workers whom Fulton election officials asked the county to provide with police protection, along with her mother, Ruby Freeman.

They were thrust into the national spotlight after being falsely accused of committing ballot fraud at their poll, Mercedes Benz stadium, during the 2020 election by Trump, his attorney Rudy Guiliani, and others. Angry Trump supporters bombarded them with death threats and even showed up at their family members’ homes, looking for them. The pair have since filed defamation lawsuits against Guiliani and a far-right cable news outlet, One America News Network.

“Having [contact] with individuals who have had their lives ruined by simply trying to perform the essential functions of their job, I understand the reality of this situation probably better than some,” said Kidd, who’s kept in touch with Moss since leaving the Fulton elections office for his Douglas position.

New laws add risk

Since those email exchanges between Fulton elections officials and county executives in January, 2021, the work of an election worker has only become more perilous. Georgia lawmakers instituted sweeping election reforms in 2021 that could cause legal jeopardy for those charged with implementing them. 

While there are an array of legal protections for voters, election workers have few, say voting rights lawyers. “No election workers in this state can expect their county to be their backstop if they do something wrong,” Vasu Abhiraman, the ACLU of Georgia’s senior policy counsel, told Atlanta Civic Circle. 

The current election system poses “an unholy trinity–low pay, long hours, and, now, threats of political violence and possible threats of prosecution,” he added.

In a major change, a law passed earlier this month, SB 441, empowers the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to immediately probe any allegations of malfeasance that “if established, are sufficient to change or place in doubt the results of an election,” without waiting to be called in by the secretary of state or attorney general’s offices. Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 441 into law on April 27.

While SB 441 does not specifically mention poll workers, voting rights groups have raised alarms. “This legislation would further burden the process of running our elections and embolden conspiracy theorists as well as threaten our elections workers,” said Fair Fight Action in an April 5 statement denouncing the new law.

Abhiraman raised concerns about election workers becoming ensnared in a politically motivated dragnet and facing a GBI probe. 

“In Georgia, whenever an election worker is accused of doing something wrong, it’s usually just a good-intention mistake,” he said. Before SB 441, any malfeasance accusations first went to the State Elections Board. It resolved most cases, sending only serious potential violations to the Secretary of State or attorney general’s office for further investigation, Abhiraman said.

But with the new laws, the path for election workers to resolve alleged election infractions isn’t so clear–and there’s no guarantee that their county employer will have their back.

The huge number of temporary poll workers hired for election days further complicates the situation. They are expected to be well-versed in the untested new laws, which are often confusing and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, Abhiramen and other lawyers said. 

And if a poll worker is accused of doing something wrong, it’s up to each of Georgia’s 159 counties to decide what support, if any, to provide.

The Cobb and Douglas County elections offices are two that say they’ll go to bat for their election workers. In Cobb, either the county attorney or the county elections board’s attorney would represent them, said Janine Eveler, the director of the Cobb Board of Elections and Registration.

“If they just made an error, then they’re in their official capacity, so they’re not personally liable,” Eveler told Atlanta Civic Circle. “They’d have to get their own attorney for a criminal act.”

The same goes for any Douglas County election workers who unintentionally misstep. “The county will always back poll workers in any instance, and we will essentially provide legal support as long as election law allows it,” Kidd said.

But Kidd is concerned about the direction in which Georgia’s election administration is headed. “The elections process is how we have chosen as a country to govern ourselves,” he said. “If  those governing principles or governing policies don’t work, then we are not America.”

FURTHER RESOURCES: 

The federal government is doing a poor job of protecting election workers, according to a new Brennan Center poll of county election officials nationwide. Read here for what the public policy organization says Congress can do to fix this.

To report threats to election workers, visit tips.fbi.gov

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the new election reform law authorizing the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to immediately investigate election matters is SB 441, not SB 202–and, further, that SB 441 only authorizes the GBI to intervene in cases that “if established are sufficient to change or place in doubt the results of an election,” and does not specifically mention poll workers. This story also has been updated to reflect that Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 441 into law on April 27.    

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