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GOP Wants Volunteering at the Polls to Come With Risk of Jail Time or Huge Fines

As the GOP moves to sabotage the electoral process, these laws aim to scare away potential voters and poll workers.

A volunteer holds signs during the Senate runoff elections on January 5, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Part of the Series

Over the past couple months, GOP legislators in several states have passed legislation purportedly intended to protect the integrity of the vote. In reality, these bills — which GOP governors in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Iowa, and elsewhere, have rushed to sign — contain poison pill provisions that make it harder for residents to vote. Less publicized is that they also contain a number provisions that make poll workers and other election officials legally liable for small, unintentional errors of process that could occur at the polls or in the distribution of ballots.

The laws are aimed at making the voting process more cumbersome, and at making the election process more manipulable for partisan advantage.

In Iowa, for example, a new law mandates that polls close at 8pm instead of 9pm, thus reducing the time that many people have to vote after work. There’s no good reason for that; it’s simply intended to make it harder to vote. The law also reduces the number of days for early voting, limits the number of drop-boxes for ballots to one per county, and mandates that counties only send absentee ballots out to voters who explicitly request them. As a part of this package, legislators made it a felony offense for county auditors — the people in charge of the county elections machinery — to violate any of these provisions, even accidentally.

In Georgia, where legislators attracted national attention after making it a crime to provide water to people waiting in line to vote, new laws allow the partisan State Election Board, controlled by Republicans, to replace county election officials they deem not to be doing a good job, and the law then allows those newly appointed county officials to fire other election workers in their jurisdiction.

In Florida, Arizona, Texas, and several other states, election officials now face the possibility of fines of up to $25,000 and/or jail time for an array of very minor offenses, such as allowing drop-boxes to be left unsupervised or operable outside of early voting hours, failing to ask for proof of citizenship from would-be-voters who have been flagged as being potentially ineligible to vote, and mailing out absentee ballots to voters who haven’t requested them.

All told, according to a New York Times analysis, nine states have already increased the penalties against elections workers who intentionally or accidentally get on the wrong side of these new rules. Others are likely to follow suit.

As the GOP passes ever-more expansive rules aimed at sabotaging the electoral process, democracy advocates are growing increasingly concerned that these laws will scare away not only potential voters but also critical numbers of poll workers, the vast majority of whom are citizen-volunteers, as well as salaried officials who have spent decades building up knowledge of how the often-arcane election machinery in their counties and states works.

Obviously, says Derek Tisler, a fellow at the New York-based Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, one wants local election officials to follow state law, but, he says, these new laws are being passed in such a clearly partisan context and amid such a flurry of disinformation that he worries they will be used not to promote best practices but instead to simply “chill election officials,” scaring them away from creating the sorts of user-friendly voting systems that were adopted in the face of the pandemic and that resulted in record levels of voter turnout last November. “It’s a really disturbing trend,” Tisler explains.

In non-pandemic years, state officials know that a majority of their election volunteers will be elderly. When the pandemic hit, finding poll workers became a particular problem, as the elderly are the most vulnerable demographic. In the run-up to last year’s elections, state officials scrambled to convince tens of thousands of volunteers to put aside fears of personal safety about COVID, and to staff polling stations and do other election-related work around the country. Private companies urged their employees to step up. Sports franchises converted their arena into early voting sites and urged fans to volunteer. By the thousands, people responded, many of them far younger than the average age of poll workers in years past. It was an extraordinary outpouring of public service.

Now, however, that renewed civic engagement is under direct threat. After all, why volunteer to help run an election if you risk huge financial penalties or even jail time if you misinterpret a state election law provision?

If states end up facing poll worker shortages, at the end of the day voters suffer. There’s a risk, says Tisler, that there will be “fewer polling places, longer wait times, not enough people to assist them or offer guidance.” Paradoxically, he continues, these laws that are ostensibly meant to rein in errors will likely lead to more mistakes being made, as overworked poll workers try to do too much with too few resources.

Monitors have already noticed a brain drain of election officials leaving their jobs in Pennsylvania, a state where, in the months preceding and following the November 2020 elections, officials were routinely harassed and threatened by political partisans, and accused of putting their fingers on the scales to tip the election against Trump.

After Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill that included $10,000 fines for “technical infractions” such as accidentally opening a poll station a few minutes late, local officials warned that they could see an exodus of election workers as a result.

Tisler says that he has also encountered stories of officials in Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia deciding to either retire early or to seek other jobs in county departments outside of the field of elections. And he worries that, in the face of harassment, misinformation and now legislation that criminalizes commonplace mistakes, many of the most experienced volunteer poll workers — the ones who can be relied on year in year out to show up for Election Day — will decide it’s no longer worth it in 2022 or 2024.

“We need to build public awareness — get people to understand the impact these laws could have, and the impact on voters,” Tisler says. “We need to get to a place where public leaders have a commitment to democratic fairness.”

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