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Intimidation and harassment of Michigan election workers could land violators in prison under new legislation

At a hearing for two House bills, election officials and advocates describe recent threats that risk driving election workers from their jobs.

People line up at a table in a large room while workers speak to them and assist
Poll workers check in voters at a polling place in Detroit during the midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022. (Matthew Hatcher SOPA Images/LightRocket / Getty Images)

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Michigan election workers and officials say they’ve endured threats to hang them from a tree, harassing phone calls filled with foul language, and other hostile behavior such as being followed near their homes while doing their jobs.

Under legislation introduced in the state House, intimidating, threatening, or harassing an election worker could be prosecuted as a criminal offense, up to a felony.

State Rep. Kara Hope, a Democrat, said at a Tuesday hearing of the Michigan House Election Committee that she introduced House Bills 4129 and 4130 to protect election workers and deter those threatening them.

“Elections cannot take place without election workers. That’s the bottom line,” Hope said. Election work is poorly paid and temporary, she said, and those who do it as a civic duty are “not willing to risk their own safety or their own peace of mind.” Hope said the legislation is timely because the state is adding in-person early voting, which will require more workers.

Under House Bill 4129, a person intimidating an election worker or preventing them from doing their job to the point that they would “feel terrorized, frightened, threatened, harassed, or molested” could be criminally charged, while House Bill 4130 would amend sentencing guidelines to make a habitual offense of intimidating or harassing an election worker a felony. If found guilty, violators could spend up to five years in prison.

Hope, who represents a district in Ingham County, said election workers are increasingly feeling unsafe and that the new law would give them an added measure of protection. The state doesn’t currently have a law specifically addressing threats against election workers.

In March, election officials testified about threats they experienced during and after the November 2020 election, including Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey, who told lawmakers that someone shot at a staff member from her office.

Michigan is among 10 states where the risk of election disruption is high due to false allegations and “anti-voter” sentiments and activity over the past few years, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

If passed, Michigan will join 12 other states that have similar laws protecting election workers.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, testifying via Zoom at Tuesday’s hearing, said she has “experienced a lot of these threats firsthand,” including a high-profile December 2020 incident when people protested outside her house. Benson said the threats and harassment reported by election workers have been fueled by a multi-faceted and coordinated misinformation campaign aimed at Michigan and other key battleground states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The new bills “will ensure real accountability for anyone who harasses an election clerk,” she said.

Citing a Brennan Center for Justice survey released in April, Benson said 73 percent of local election officials reported feeling that threats had increased in recent years. 

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against three suspects in separate cases involving threats against election officials in Michigan, Arizona and Georgia.

In Michigan, a 37-year-old Indiana man was charged for making threats against then-Rochester Hills clerk Tina Barton. According to the 3-page federal indictment, Andrew Nickels allegedly called Barton and left a voicemail saying, “We’re watching your … mouth talk about how you think that there’s no irregularities … [Y]ou frauded out America of a real election..Guess what, you’re gonna pay for it, you will pay for it…[T]en million plus patriots will surround you when you least expect it: your little infantile Deep State security agency has no time to protect you because they bought out and we’ll [expletive] kill you.. [Y]ou will [expletive] pay for your [expletive] lying ass remarks We will [expletive] take you out. [Expletive] your family, [expletive] your life, and you deserve a throat to the knife… Watch your [expletive] back …watch your [expletive] back.”

Nickels is charged with one count of making a threatening interstate communication. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison. A jury trial has been scheduled for Oct. 10.

Barton wrote about the threats to her life on social media last month.

“I’m relieved to know that the man who officials believe is responsible for making explicit and terrifying death threats against me & my family has been identified. This has not been an easy thing for me & my family to go through for the last 2.5+ years,” Barton wrote. “I’m hopeful that today’s arraignment sends a strong message that threatening election officials is unacceptable and illegal.”

Lata Nott, senior legal counsel for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, which advocates on voting rights, also testified at Tuesday’s hearing, urging committee members to pass the legislation.

“Election workers across the country have been on the receiving end of an onslaught of threats, harassment …stalking that’s  escalated into an undeniable crisis,” said Nott during her testimony via Zoom. “Michigan is no exception.”

Nott said a Campaign Legal Center study found that one out of six election workers nationally had experienced threats in connection with their jobs. Others have been forced to take new precautions. She pointed to Canton Township clerk Michael Siegrist, who said he made some security upgrades, such as relocating garbage cans where bombs could potentially be placed, following a security site assessment by U.S. Homeland Security agents. Siegrist said he installed a badge access system, increased security camera coverage, and focused on securing doors as part of $30,000 in security upgrades.

State Rep. Rachelle Smit, a Republican who represents a district covering part of Allegan, Barry, and Eaton counties, asked Hope if the bill would cover ballot challengers. Hope answered the bill is “strictly” about election workers. 

Smit, a former clerk who says she has been harassed herself, also asked Benson if the state keeps track of threats against clerks and other election workers. Benson said the Michigan Attorney General would be in a position to collect such data.

Oralandar Brand-Williams is a senior reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Bridge Michigan. Contact Oralandar at obrand-williams@votebeat.org.

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