5 min read

What intimidation at the polls means for future elections

As mistrust has risen, election workers have been faced with angry and accusatory voters who have turned to threats, intimidation, and harassment, making a critical job even more difficult.
What intimidation at the polls means for future elections
Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

When Zib Corell decided to run for supervisor of the checklist in Concord, it wasn’t a hard decision. As a child, she had seen her mom work the polls, and she was eager to fulfill her civic duty in turn. But Corell worries that recruiting the next generation of poll workers won’t be so easy.

“I think some people are going to say, ‘I’m going to sit this one out. I don’t need to be dealing with hotheads and people who are going to give me nightmares,’” Corell said.

Corell’s suspicions are backed by data. A March report published by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute at New York University School of Law, found that one in six election officials polled had been threatened, causing some to leave their jobs over safety concerns.

Election workers are tasked with running elections that are free and fair. But as mistrust in those elections has risen, they’re faced with angry and accusatory voters who have turned to threats, intimidation, and harassment, making a critical job even more difficult.

In New Hampshire, that’s raised concerns about recruiting the next generation of election workers to a job that now comes with hazards that poll workers of the last generation say were essentially nonexistent.

In one situation, Corell described a man who came to the polling place where she was working and started filming. She said he asked questions but wouldn’t answer any in return. He was derogatory toward her, she said, and she later learned that he had visited other polling places and used the same tactics, claiming to have a gun and intimidating people who worked there.

“Do I think the temperature is rising and the tension is rising with that?” she said. “Yeah, I do.”

“When you’re raising questions of people being intimidating, or pushing their rights in a more aggressive way, that’s really off-putting,” Corell added.

The Brennan Center report found that election officials are aware that threats are increasing, and many worry about recruiting and hiring in the future. That concern is shared by some in New Hampshire, such as Olivia Zink, the executive director of Open Democracy Action, an organization that advocates for voting rights.

Zink pointed out that as the older generation retires from working the polls, the newer generation hasn’t stepped up to fill those roles. And she’s worried that poll workers who face threats and intimidation will resign and leave vacant positions in their wake.

“I’m very nervous about that because we need moderators and supervisors who are nonpartisan and can run fair elections,” Zink said.

Having elections run smoothly depends on the people who work the polls.

Sarah Chaffee is the clerk of Ward 6 in Concord and is responsible for recruiting anywhere from 15 to 40 people to work elections. She’s built up a list of people over the years and finds they are generally willing to return. But she said threats and intimidation could dissuade some people from working elections.

“I was recruited because I have a way of dealing with difficult people,” Chaffee said.

In general, Chaffee said, elections are low drama, and there’s a happy buzz. “People seem to be very jolly about going out and voting,” she said. But some incidents are an exception to that rule.

Once, Chaffee said, a man entered the polling place and verbally attacked her supervisor, an older woman. “Oh, you’re the people who are stealing the election,” Chaffee recalled the man saying. Her supervisor pushed back. “Are you calling me a liar? Are you saying I’m cheating?” she retorted. The man eventually left.

In another instance, Chaffee considered calling the police because she was concerned an “irate” voter was threatening others’ safety after he realized a Libertarian candidate wasn’t on the ballot.

Incidents like those are rare, Chaffee emphasized. “But I don’t think anybody should have to put up with that behavior,” she said.

Legislative action

The Legislature passed a bill this session, Senate Bill 405, that would make intimidating an election officer a class B felony. “No person shall use or threaten force, violence, or any tactic of coercion or intimidation to knowingly discourage, interfere with, or compel any election officer … from engaging in or completing duties related to an election,” states the bill, which is en route to the governor.

But the bill also includes a section aimed at punishing misconduct among election officials, through a fine against the city, town, or place where the misconduct occurred. The fine could range from $250 to $1,000.

It’s not the only bill this year that looks to impose punishments for misconduct. The final version of House Bill 1567, agreed to by House and Senate negotiators last week, would make election misconduct a misdemeanor. It instructs the attorney general to investigate the misconduct and rescind the person’s right to vote if they are convicted.

The town or city where that election official was working could also be fined anywhere from $250 to $1,000.

Corell criticized this punitive approach. “I think it’s a total farce,” she said.

“When I’m serving in this capacity, I’m not government. I’m your neighbor,” she added. “… Instead of saying, ‘We trust you because you’re going to be sitting with our other neighbors to try to give us the right answer on the voting process,’ it’s presuming we’re in there for some nefarious purpose."

Corell thinks the bill could discourage people from getting involved with running elections in the future.

Impact of politics

The Brennan Center report found that political attacks on the election system take a toll on local election officials, driving some to quit. The number of election workers concerned about political interference has increased threefold since the 2020 elections, according to the poll, and around 20 percent of poll workers say they might leave the job before the 2024 election.

Election workers say the shift after the 2020 election – and the false narrative that the election was rigged – was palpable.

“No one really became super curious until the 2020 presidential election,” said Kate Gargano, the city clerk of Franklin. “Mainly it was the politicians that started the whole mistrust, saying that extra ballots are being thrown in, dead people were voting.”

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, although politicians across the country continue using this narrative as they run for election, such as David Perdue in his bid to win the Republican primary for governor in Georgia, and Doug Mastriano, who won the nomination for governor in Pennsylvania.

In Greenland, that mistrust led to a special election over whether to remove the town’s AccuVote machine. “People didn’t trust them, they thought they were rigged, which they’re not,” Marge Morgan, the town clerk, said of the machines. She said that in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, a lot of people are angry and have unanswered questions that are then directed at town and city clerks.

“We run a very tight election and we felt attacked, to be honest with you,” she said.

Morgan remembers the special election: It was a snowy day one week before Christmas, but that didn’t stop people from showing up to vote. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the machine.

“The town really supported us because we felt they were questioning our integrity,” she said. “Why would we want to do anything to have a phony election?”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com.