Secretary of state recounts harassment of election workers; promotes protections in bill  

‘These folks didn’t sign up for the job for public glory, and didn’t expect it to put a target on their back’

By: - March 2, 2023 6:01 am

Nick Green walks to the voting booths with his son, Flynn, 2, at Edison High School in Minneapolis Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said election officials were harassed, intimidated and threatened in Minnesota during the 2022 election, and the state needs a law protecting election workers.

Simon supports a bill dubbed the Election Worker Protection Act (HF635) that would ban intimidation of election officials, interference with their work and tampering with election equipment.

The bill also makes it a misdemeanor to tamper with or gain unauthorized entry into election equipment, the state voter registration system, ballot boxes or drop boxes; tamper with voter registration lists and polling place rosters; divulge personal information about election officials; or block access to polling places.

Minnesota has had a “noticeable uptick” in abusive behavior toward election administrators, Simon said during a Tuesday hearing before a House elections committee. In order to keep recruiting some 30,000 people to serve as election judges every election, they need to be assured “it’s a safe and secure environment,” Simon said.

Simon recounted several recent troubling incidents in Minnesota: A county election worker was followed to her car in a parking ramp by someone who was agitated over an election issue. Another county election administrator was harassed numerous times on her home phone on the weekend by another angry voter. And a third county worker was physically accosted in her office by a voter, which forced her to alert the sheriff’s department.

Simon said if nothing is done, fewer people will want to help run elections, which are highly decentralized in Minnesota and run by cities and counties, not his office.

Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL–Minneapolis, authored the bill, which she said is needed as election workers’ jobs have gotten more difficult since the Jan. 6 insurrection and false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. 

Many election workers have toiled for years in relative obscurity, but now misinformation has sowed mistrust toward them, leading to a wave of retirements by election administrators and election judges.

“Unfortunately, in the last three years, the increasingly tense political environment, aggressive rhetoric, disinformation about elections and social media has involuntarily thrust these men and women into the public spotlight,” said Greenman, who works as a national election lawyer as her day job. “These folks didn’t sign up for the job for public glory, and didn’t expect it to put a target on their back.”

At least eight secretaries of state — including Simon — have been threatened, she said. A survey by election watchdog Brennan Center last year found one in six election officials have been threatened, and one out of five are unlikely to continue serving in 2024.

The bill also: 

  • Allows for the removal of election judges or officials for neglecting their duties, malfeasance, misconduct “or for other cause.”
  • Prohibits the county auditor from creating or disclosing an electronic image of the hard drive of an electronic voting system, including a vote recording or tabulating system, unless authorized in writing by the secretary of state.
  • Allows the attorney general, county attorney or an election official to bring a civil action to prevent any of these election interference actions, with civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

The Association of Minnesota Counties, League of Minnesota Cities, Minnesota Association of Townships and Minnesota Association of County officers support the bill.

Dakota County Commissioner Laurie Halverson, a former state representative, said she’s been troubled by the vitriol directed at her county’s staff and election volunteers, with one staffer falsely accused of criminal activity in a whisper campaign that she said was “a very hard rumor to squelch.” She was asked for the home addresses of election judges, indicating they were being targeted. 

“They don’t deserve what they have been subjected to in Dakota County,” she said.

The county election leaders believe 2024 will bring as much or more of the same targeting of election administrators at a time when it’s hard to find volunteers.

Michael Stalberger, director of property and environmental resources for Blue Earth County, said election judges came to him with concerns about their security, and some had to be removed because of “actions that they tried to undertake” while serving.

Rep. Duan Quam, R- Byron, asked whether the bill would stop someone from being able to speak up if they see something suspicious.

Simon said nobody wants to violate people’s First Amendment rights.

“It’s every citizens’ right to be angry,” he said. “It’s their right to shake a fist in the air at us. It’s their right to use salty language. It’s their right to raise their voice. … but what we’re talking about here isn’t just speech or belief, we’re talking about conduct.”

The bill was advanced to a public safety committee.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.