“You will never walk the streets in peace again.” “Can’t wait to watch you hang for treason.” “I’m going to shoot every employee in the building.” These are just a few of the countless personal threats secretaries of state across the country have faced over the last year simply for doing our jobs as election administrators. Some of us have needed police protection; others and their families have had to leave their homes to seek safety.
These threats are worse now than ever. Just this August, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning of “an increase in calls for violence online tied to election-related conspiracy theories,” and around the same time the Department of Justice launched a task force to address threats against election workers.
The near-daily onslaught of threats is no coincidence and is not inevitable; it is a direct consequence of the Big Lie about the 2020 election and part of a coordinated effort to undermine democracy. Extremists have been using lies to justify more than 500 voter suppression bills, run sham, partisan election reviews, and reduce voter confidence, all to try to tilt future elections in their favor. Now, they are embarking on a new phase of their campaign against democracy: targeting election officials—either by stripping us of our powers to fairly administer elections independently, running conspiracy theorists as secretary of state candidates, or threatening the safety of election officials.
So far, the response to these dangerous threats has been wholly inadequate. Despite high-profile news reports about threats directed at election officials, not all secretaries of state facing threats have been provided security by the states they serve. And, without resources to proactively monitor threats or provide security, the Department of Justice’s task force is of little comfort. Meanwhile, even in the face of credible threats, very few arrests have been made nationwide.
That’s especially concerning because these attacks aren’t just personal; they threaten to undermine the country’s election systems at large. In this new political environment, it’s no surprise that roughly 40 percent of local election officials in the largest jurisdictions say that they’re planning to leave in the coming years, posing what could become a vast, unprecedented personnel challenge to running fair, free, and secure elections. A loss of trusted and knowledgeable election officials and workers would be a blow to our nation’s election administration.
To meaningfully protect election workers, we need state and federal governments to step up by 1) providing threat monitoring and security to secretaries of state who have been threatened for doing our jobs; 2) allocating more resources and personnel to the Department of Justice’s task force so it can ensure the safety of election officials and proactively address threats against them; 3) passing the Preventing Election Subversion Act and the Freedom to Vote Act in Congress, to protect Americans’ right to vote and make it a crime to threaten election officials and workers; 4) investing greater federal funding in our election infrastructure both this year and in the long run; and 5) passing bills in state legislatures to protect the ability of secretaries of state to independently oversee election administration.
The pressures election officials face are likely to grow. Former President Donald Trump’s support for conspiracy theorists and January 6 insurrectionists running for secretary of state has emboldened attacks on pro-democracy officials and candidates. He has made spreading the Big Lie a litmus test to run for secretary of state as a Republican, all to erode the system from within. We cannot allow these people to become state chief election officers; as some have said, that would be like hiring an arsonist to oversee the fire department.
Election officials who believe in protecting the right to vote are the last line of defense against the coordinated attack on democracy we’re witnessing. For months now, we have been on the frontlines of fighting modern Jim Crow policies, debunking lies about elections, taking actions to stop sham election reviews, and implementing policies that allow all eligible Americans—no matter what they look like or believe in—to make their voices heard and have their votes fairly counted.
We can win the battle for democracy but we need everyone—voters, lawmakers, and activists—to keep the fight going. We can’t collectively watch this slow-motion erosion of democracy and hope for better days. A brighter future depends on all of us. That’s why we need state and federal leaders to join us in this fight, and for voters to elect people who will uphold our democratic values as a nation.
Jena Griswold is secretary of state for Colorado, and chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.