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Disinformation about the security of America’s elections, particularly the falsehoods spread by former President Donald Trump who still falsely claims he won the 2020 election, has prompted heightened anxiety around voting for some people.
Increasingly, that anxiety has turned to threats — and even violence — against poll workers, town clerks and others who do the hard work of manning polling places and counting ballots on Election Day.
An investigation by the news agency Reuters found more than 850 instances of threats and hostile messages directed at election officials in the U.S. after the November 2020 election. Some of the worst threats were in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his family were the target of death threats after he refused to go along with Trump’s requests to alter the election outcome. The Raffenspergers and several other election officials went into hiding because of the severity of the threats.
As with so much these days, it is time to turn down the rhetoric and anger.
In Maine, our elections are transparent and well run. We have paper ballots, which make recounts and finding errors relatively easy. A state law says that there should be an equal number of Republicans and Democrats election clerks at polling places. Election observers are common, and welcomed.
Still, the anger around elections and voting has reached the Pine Tree state and two instances of violence and threats against election officials have been reported to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.
Members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee recently heard testimony from dozens of town officials about the increasingly difficult conditions they face in administering the state’s elections.
Karen Estee, the town clerk in Kittery, said she and her staff were called “murderers” and “Nazis.” She said she was especially frustrated that people get away with this type of behavior.
These threats come at a time when it is increasingly difficult to find workers to staff Maine’s polling places.
We don’t know if stiffer penalties will dissuade such behavior — those making these threats likely aren’t thinking about the consequences of their actions. But strengthening Maine’s laws on election-related harassment and interference, and improving the record keeping about such incidents, is warranted.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted unanimously on Monday to approve a bill that makes the intentional interference with, intimidation or violence against a municipal election official a Class D crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. The original bill would have made such actions a felony with the possibility of five years in prison, but it was amended after concerns were raised by the ACLU, defense lawyers and others.
This new offense of intentional interference with election officials would be included in the state’s election laws, which means that such acts would be referred to the state’s attorney general for investigation.
The amended bill also requires the secretary of state’s office to maintain a database of such threats and to compile an annual report about them.
These changes aren’t likely to end bad behavior, but the bill gives election officials and state lawmakers better tools to combat the most egregious cases.