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Time Is Running Out for Congress to Protect Election Workers Before 2024

5 minute read

When lawmakers return from their August recess next month, Congress will have only a handful of days to pass a budget and avoid a government shutdown on October 1. Last-minute faceoffs have become a routine exercise on Capitol Hill, but the stakes this year extend beyond the federal bureaucracy. As part of the rough-and-tumble of trying to pass the next spending bill, Democrats are desperately pushing to incorporate another crucial priority: protecting state and local election workers.

The agenda item has taken on increased significance as of late. Former President Donald Trump is running to reclaim the White House while defending himself against multiple criminal indictments, including on charges that he conspired to overturn the 2020 election. It’s a scenario that’s poised to create a powder-keg environment when voters cast ballots next year. 

“There's an urgency to this, given the climate we're in and wanting to be as prepared as we can for the 2024 election,” Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland tells TIME. “These dollars need to get out to these officials sooner rather than later.” Simply put, the upcoming budget is likely the last chance for Congress to help safeguard the next election.

At the heart of the effort are two objectives: to ramp up funding for state and local election offices and to pass an election security bill that would strengthen the federal penalties for harassing or intimidating election administrators. It comes as election officials have faced a titanic upswing in death threats, online intimidation, and abuse. An April survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found that nearly half of all election workers feared for their colleagues’ safety. 

“We need to be more prepared, and restore what has already been underfunded,” Omar Sabir, the city commissioner of Philadelphia, tells TIME. “Elections have always been underfunded for years.” Congress allocated $75 million to help fund federal elections in the last two fiscal-year budgets, a small fraction of what election officials and outside experts say is necessary. Last June, a bipartisan group of election workers, orchestrated by the nonprofit advocacy group Issue One, pressed Hill lawmakers to allocate more than five times that much—at least $400 million—for the next election. Those dollars, which would be disbursed to states and municipalities through Election Security Grants, would fund new cyber protections to thwart the hacking of voting machines and vote-counting software; physical security at polling and canvassing locations; and, in some cases, protecting the homes of election administrators facing threats of violence. 

The other part of the equation is to disincentivize menacing behavior toward election officials. The Election Worker Protection Act, authored by Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, would strengthen the criminal penalties for harassing or intimidating election workers. “Election workers are on the frontlines of our democracy, but they have faced serious threats, intimidation, and even physical harm,” Klobuchar tells TIME. 

That hits home for Sabir, who remembers when two Virginia men were arrested in November 2020 for carrying automatic guns near the Philadelphia Convention Center, where mail ballots were being tallied in the pivotal swing state. Last October, they were found guilty of bringing weapons into the city without a permit—but acquitted on election interference charges. 

Some states have recently advanced their own measures to protect election workers, such as Nevada, but activists are hoping for federal measures that would extend to officials in states with more lenient laws. They hope it would send a signal to would-be miscreants. “Nevada passed legislation to make it a felony to harass or intimidate election workers and volunteers, which is giving election workers the faith that we have their back,” Cisco Aguilar, Nevada’s Secretary of State, tells TIME. “We are not gonna allow people to f-ck with them.”

Officials in other battleground states would like to see that policy adopted more broadly. “A few people wearing an orange jumpsuit picking up trash on the side of the road would go a long way,” Ed Lindsey, a Republican member of the Georgia State Election Board, tells TIME. 

Congress has already solidified some extra help for election workers. Last year, the Election Assistance Commission approved a request from Klobuchar and then-Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, to support state and local election security measures through the Help America Vote Act, which passed in 2002 after Florida’s hanging chad fiasco upended the 2000 presidential election. 

But advancing new legislation through a highly divided Congress is a far more formidable challenge. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the House, but their MAGA flank is deeply resistant to increasing federal aid for elections, which they claim without evidence are rife with fraud and corruption. Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would support either measure. “It's a tough climate in Congress for getting some of these things passed,” says Sarbanes, who has introduced voting-rights legislation in the House with some of the same provisions in Klobuchar's bill.

While the issue remains polarized on the Hill, surveys show that the idea enjoys bipartisan support from voters. A recent poll conducted by Citizen Data, a nonpartisan group, found that 74% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans support federal funding of state and local elections.

“I think the public is certainly on our side,” Sarbanes says. “Whether we can convince members of the House who have the gavel and decision-making authority for what comes to the floor is a different matter. I'm not super optimistic about that, but we’re going to make it very clear that their responsibility to their constituents and to the voting public makes it absolutely necessary to put these protections in place.”

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