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U.S. Election Officials Face Their Biggest Threat Yet — Jail Time

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 4/20/2022 Ryan Teague Beckwith

(Bloomberg) -- Over the last two years, local elections officials across the U.S. have faced a deadly pandemic, shortages of funding and workers, false claims of election fraud and even death threats.

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Now they could face prison, too.

Under a spate of laws proposed or passed in at least 10 states, elections administrators could see criminal charges and penalties that include thousands of dollars in fines or even prison time for technical infractions of election statutes.

Runbeck Election Services As Capacity Increased To Prepare For Mail Voting Surge © Bloomberg Runbeck Election Services As Capacity Increased To Prepare For Mail Voting Surge

In Arizona, a new law makes it a felony, punishable by up to 2 1/2 years in prison, followed by loss of voting rights or gun ownership, for an elections official to send a mail-in ballot to any voter who has not requested one. It’s now a felony in Kentucky, with a possible five-year prison term, for an official to accept a donation or “anything of value” to assist with an election. In Florida, elections officials could face up to $25,000 in fines if they leave a ballot drop box unsupervised.

Broad new laws in Iowa and Texas make it a felony, with prison terms of up to five years in Iowa and up to two years in Texas, for elections officials who fail to follow a number of election procedures, while similar bills are pending in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

The laws are part of a broader effort to crack down on alleged voter fraud by Republican lawmakers who often echo former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. No one has yet been prosecuted under these new laws, but election activity will ramp up closer to November. 

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In fact, actual voter fraud is rare. An Associated Press review of six political-battleground states found just 475 disputed ballots out of 25.5 million cast for president, far too few to have had any impact on the outcome.

The aftermath of the 2020 election, coupled with the new laws, are making the job of elections administrator less and less attractive. A study last summer by the reporting consortium Votebeat and Spotlight PA found that 21 elections directors or deputies in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had already quit or were planning to. Nationwide, a March survey of local elections officials by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that one in five local administrators say they are likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 election. 

Voters In Florida's 20th Congressional District Vote To Fill Seat Of Late Rep. Alcee Hastings © Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images Voters In Florida's 20th Congressional District Vote To Fill Seat Of Late Rep. Alcee Hastings

Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor for 28 years in Leon County, Florida, which includes Tallahassee, said the threat of a fine that amounts to half a year’s pay under the state’s new law has led local elections officials to reduce the number of drop-box locations and assign senior staff rather than volunteers to monitor them.

“It puts the fear of God into elections administrators, and that’s what it’s designed to do,” he said.


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A 2020 survey found that more than 75% of elections clerks were over 50, White and female, and 54% made less than $50,000 a year. 

Until recently, such officials toiled in anonymity. But Trump’s cries of foul play led to a rise in violent threats and the online releases of personal information about the officials. 

Demonstrators Attend ‘Stop The Steal’ Rally © Bloomberg Demonstrators Attend ‘Stop The Steal’ Rally

State Representative Bobby Kaufmann, the Republican floor manager of the Iowa bill, said in a video Q&A that the felony provisions in the bill were inspired by three county auditors who sent out mass applications for mail-in ballots that contained pre-filled sections for name and address and other identifying information, even though the secretary of state had told local officials the forms should be sent blank to ensure uniformity under state law. The Trump campaign sued and won, resulting in tens of thousands of applications for ballots being invalidated. Under the new law, instead of being a civil matter, such a mailing would now be a felony punishable up to five years in prison.

“The bill makes sure that any future elections official that commits election misconduct will face the same punishment that you or I or the general public would if we did the same thing,” he said.

State laws have long spelled out what elections administrators can and can’t do, including criminal penalties for election tampering. In Colorado, Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, a Republican, and deputy Belinda Knisley face multiple charges over accusations they helped someone copy sensitive information from voting machines that was later shared online with conspiracy theorists.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted to skip sending assistants into nursing homes to help residents cast their ballots in person, sending mail-in ballots instead. The Racine County sheriff, a Trump supporter, later recommended felony criminal charges of election fraud and official misconduct over the decision. 

Three prosecutors declined to pursue, with the Racine district attorney saying that she lacked jurisdiction. A Republican bill that would expand jurisdiction was recently vetoed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who said it would lead to “parties shopping around for judges who are perceived as more sympathetic to one political side or another.”

“The idea is to get rid of the people who are doing the real work of elections administration,” said Ann Jacobs, chair of the state elections commission.  

The laws come as states are giving law enforcement greater powers to pursue suspected election crimes.

In Florida, a new Office of Election Crimes and Security will have a $2.5 million budget and a staff of 25 who report directly to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. In Georgia, state lawmakers have empowered the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to look for election crimes and voter fraud.

Georgia Begins Hand Tally Of Presidential Race © Bloomberg Georgia Begins Hand Tally Of Presidential Race

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who resisted Trump’s requests to “find” enough votes to overturn election results there, supported the legislation, saying it would provide more resources to investigate voter fraud. 

Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas and Tennessee, among others, are also considering measures that would give state and local officials more authority to launch criminal investigations of elections crimes.

David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, said that the laws could have a “chilling effect” on the field.

“Elections officials could find themselves subject to criminal prosecution because someone went to the bathroom and left a drop box unattended,” he said. “Who’s going to want to do those jobs?”

(Adds quote in 17th paragraph. An earlier version corrects description of legal dispute in Iowa over mail-in ballots beginning in 13th paragraph in story published April 19)

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