State election officials at U.S. Senate hearing discuss threats to workers, call for funding
Democrats on Tuesday expressed concern about threats to election workers and disinformation campaigns that aim to undermine elections. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
WASHINGTON — Election officials on Tuesday detailed to the U.S. Senate Rules Committee how their states countered threats to election workers and worked to combat misinformation and disinformation during the 2022 midterm election.
With the 2024 presidential election closely approaching, Senate Rules Committee Chair Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she was concerned about threats to election workers and disinformation campaigns that aim to undermine elections.
Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said it was important to hear from election officials from those states — North Carolina, South Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska — to help prepare for the 2024 elections.
“In the face of these challenges, it is important as ever that we continue to support election officials as they do their jobs to uphold our democracy,” she said.
Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, said the “big lie” has had an effect on election workers, because many have left due to threats and harassment.
During the 2020 presidential election, former President Donald Trump falsely stated that the election was stolen, which led to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol where a mob of pro-Trump supporters tried to stop Congress from certifying the presidential election.
“It’s not just a matter of capacity that’s being lost as a result, but the tremendous talent and experience that’s lost while threats and challenges to our elections are only on the increase,” Padilla said.
One in six election workers has faced threats.
“We know the impact that the big lie has had through the sowing of disinformation throughout about our elections in the minds of a lot of the American people,” Padilla said.
Padilla previously served as California’s secretary of state.
Klobuchar asked Howard Knapp, the executive director of the South Carolina State Election Commission, how his state has worked to combat misinformation and disinformation about elections.
Misinformation is false or inaccurate information, while disinformation is deliberately spreading false or misleading content with the purpose of causing harm.
“The reality is there is a segment of the population that’s not going to believe anything we say no matter what we say, and that’s not who I’m speaking to,” Knapp said. “I’m speaking to the other 90% of the population, that all they hear is the screaming and the misinformation.”
Knapp said that transparency is key to combating those attacks.
“At some point, Americans have to decide, do you believe the election officials or not? And so this is our best shot at trying to be as transparent as possible, and that’s really something I’ve tried to hit home during my tenure is transparency,” he said.
He said that after the 2020 presidential election, his agency published a guide on how elections run in South Carolina, from information about how voting machines work to how voting audits are conducted.
Klobuchar asked New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, what major issues she saw emerging in 2022.
Toulouse Oliver said a challenge in the most recent election was the “weaponization of public records requests.”
She said some counties have an office consisting of only two workers.
“When they’re being bombarded with literally hundreds of requests for thousands of documents, many of which are not actually relevant to the conduct of elections … that’s really challenging,” she said.
Toulouse Oliver said another challenge is hiring and retaining officials because “mis and disinformation has generated a lot of threatening and harassing activity.”
Election security experts warned members of Congress last year about potential misinformation and disinformation campaigns that would target the 2022 elections.
Toulouse Oliver said the federal government can aid states by providing federal funding for upgrading outdated equipment and technology and addressing staffing issues, among other things.
“More consistent federal funding for elections allows election administrators to better plan for short-, medium-, and long-term goals that benefit all voters,” she said.
Derek Bowens, the director of elections for Durham County Board of Elections in North Carolina, said while he was proud of how the county handled the 2022 midterm elections, officials throughout the state were often harassed, threatened and intimidated “by people who did not understand the elections process and did not like the outcome of our certified elections.”
Bowens said he has concerns about the upcoming 2024 presidential election.
“I know that threats against and harassment of election officials continue,” he said. “With this in mind, I hope Congress will consider providing financial support directly to my colleagues who administer elections at the local level, many of whom may not be able to implement critical physical or cybersecurity measures necessitated by today’s threat environment.”
Freshman Sen. Katie Britt, Republican of Alabama, asked all the witnesses how their offices have encouraged people to become poll workers.
Bowens said Durham County was able to financially compensate poll workers, but added that not every county in North Carolina has the funds to do so.
Knapp said that paying poll workers is a great way to get more people involved.
Nebraska Secretary of State Robert Evnen said in his state, recruitment efforts went back to 2020, when the state did a campaign urging Nebraskans to step up due to the coronavirus pandemic because many of the poll worker volunteers were elderly.
“Nebraskans take care of each other,” he said, adding that the campaign asked “the next generation to step forward, and they did.”
Toulouse Oliver said one way New Mexico tries to get people involved is by allowing 16 and 17-year-old volunteers to serve as poll workers.
“We are seeing a lot of success with that,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Voter ID Laws
Evnen, a Republican, detailed how the state is moving to implement new voter identification requirements after voters adopted an amendment for the requirements in the 2022 election. He said these laws make voters feel more secure about their vote.
He said his office estimates that about 98% of registered voters have a state-issued photo ID.
While several election officials raised concerns about disinformation and misinformation surrounding elections, Evnen declined to talk about disinformation campaigns.
“(Disinformation campaigns) are highly significant but not something that elections officials have much ability to affect beyond cautioning voters to be cautious about their sources of information and to think critically about claim they hear,” he said in his testimony.
Evnen said one of the biggest threats to election security is early voting, a frequent target for Republicans.
“The threats that come with early voting include the opportunity to pressure or intimidate voters, and the possibility of vote buying efforts,” he said. “The potential for this sort of fraud is intensifying as these early voting methods become more ubiquitous. In my view we ought to focus our attention on these matters.”
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