By Simon Radecki
Organizing Manager, Protect Pennsylvania Elections

As the nation prepares for the 2022 midterm elections, there is a growing problem. Election officials across the country are quitting their jobs in large numbers, leaving our election infrastructure in dire need of workers. 

While election officials are leaving for different reasons, a common theme has emerged. Far too many of them have faced constant harassment and even death threats since the 2020 election, making their jobs unbearable. 

These threats are particularly bad in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. After he lost the state, former President Trump launched numerous baseless claims about voter fraud. These lies are a major reason why nonpartisan election clerks have faced this vitriol. 

Dangerous lies turn into threats

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who oversees elections in Philadelphia, was one target of these threats. Schmidt, a Republican, was attacked by former President Trump just for doing his job. 

Because Schmidt refused to go along with the lies about voter fraud, he and his family were threatened by Trump-supporting extremists. One particularly chilling threat said, “Tell the truth or your three kids will be fatally shot."

Here at RepresentUs, we’ve documented these threats against election workers. Pennsylvania is a clear example of how these intimidation tactics are harming American democracy. 

Already, 25% of Pennsylvania’s election officials have retired after the 2020 election, taking decades of experience with them. Not only does this mean the remaining election clerks will be overworked, these retirements also create openings for extremists to come in and further undermine Pennsylvania elections. 

Pennsylvania is hardly alone. According to a March 2022 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 1 in 6 election officials have experienced threats, and 1 in 5 are “very” or “somewhat unlikely” to continue working until the 2024 election. 

Partisan Bickering Complicating Matters

On top of the consistent harassment, election clerks’ jobs have also been made harder by imperfect upgrades to election laws. In 2019, Pennsylvania updated its election code for the first time in 80 years. Called Act 77, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf described the Republican-led effort as a “grand, bipartisan compromise to encourage more voting.” 

Act 77 included substantial upgrades to voting in Pennsylvania, including no-excuse mail-in voting and 15 extra days to register to vote before each election. However, some of the law’s provisions seriously complicated vote processing for election clerks. 

Election directors were only given 48 hours to review Act 77 before it was passed by the legislature statewide, which led to many local challenges. For example, election clerks weren’t allowed to prepare mailed ballots for tabulation in advance, forcing them to wait until their busiest time of year – right after polls closed on election night – to even begin opening and unfolding hundreds of thousands of double-enveloped ballots.

Since the election, the fights about Pennsylvania’s election laws have only gotten more complicated. Many of the same people who drafted Act 77 are now challenging it as unconstitutional, even though they voted for it. Although Act 77 is expected to be upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, partisan infighting has prevented critical improvements. 

Pennsylvania’s Legislature is Republican-controlled, and the retiring governor is a Democrat. This explains the partisan gridlock to some degree. But many radical extremists still refuse to accept the 2020 election results, and have used aggressive tactics to cast doubt on the election. 

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (who voted for Act 77) has criticized Tioga County’s all-Republican board of commissioners for refusing to turn over their voting machines for a statewide audit of the election system he helped create. Mastriano’s attacks have emboldened local extremists to the point that the Tioga County commissioners have been forced to increase security after the extremists made violent threats on Facebook.

Meanwhile, election clerks are begging Pennsylvania politicians to protect them and remove the hurdles that make their jobs harder. Forrest Lehman, elections director in Lycoming County, says he needs “more time before Election Day to process mail-in ballots.” Right now, further updates to Pennsylvania’s election laws are at a standstill, and there are no bills to help protect election clerks. 

Looking Forward

Threats against election workers are unacceptable. American democracy depends on dedicated, nonpartisan officials to conduct our elections. These acts of intimidation threaten both these individuals and our democracy as a whole. 

RepresentUs is working hard across the country to protect these workers and ensure they can do their important work safely. Some states have introduced laws to protect election workers, and we will continue to advocate for more protections for these officials nationwide.

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Contributors: Adam DuBard, RepresentUs Political Analyst; Ally Marcella, RepresentUs Research Analyst