Federal Funding Is Necessary to Sustain Election Workers

What went right this past election? In short, many of the people who needed to step up did so.

When September 2022’s installment of Ms. magazine’s Women & Democracy series, “Women Saving Democracy,” was released, I was moved by the bipartisan group of women attorneys general, secretaries of state, advocates and local election officials who were featured in the project. I was particularly inspired by their dedication to doing their job in the new climate of threats and harassment. And I worried about them as the midterms approached and how the election official profession would be able to continue to recruit for future elections.

Now that official results are largely certified and as elected officials continue the business of governing, it’s important to ask ourselves: How was it that this election, conducted in the midst of grave threats to our democracy, went so smoothly? How did local election officials, 80 percent of whom are women and typically underpaid, rise to the challenge and provide us with an election that had minimal hiccups and no widespread reports of political violence? And what can we do to make sure they have the resources to do it every time?

Until recently, election official roles, including secretary of state positions, were largely jobs done behind the scenes. Individuals in these roles work diligently year-round to ensure that, come election time, every eligible voter can vote and that every eligible vote is counted. And even though the job has not traditionally been in the spotlight, the processes and procedures in place to ensure fair, accurate and secure elections have always been transparent.

Poll workers at a polling place during the Senate runoff election on Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Election officials take real enjoyment in their jobs, even in the midst of the uptick in harassment, with most citing the opportunity to serve their community as the reason why they became election officials in the first place. It’s not about money or fame.

In recent years the role has remained the same, but the profile of election administration has increased as lies have spread about the 2020 election being stolen. And this heightened environment led to concerns that election workers and voters could face intimidation or threats at polling places during the midterms.

How did local election officials, 80 percent of whom are women and typically underpaid, rise to the challenge and provide us with an election that had minimal hiccups and no widespread reports of political violence?

Election deniers with large followings used combative rhetoric to recruit individuals to be poll watchers and observers. They encouraged those who were recruited to engage in deeply flawed and misinformed investigations to find “evidence” backing unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.

A few responded to this call in Arizona by engaging in armed surveillance of drop boxes where voters were returning ballots. A federal judge had to put a stop to the practice and require disclaimers correcting misunderstandings about election laws that say who can return ballots on behalf of another voter.

In a few states, election deniers went door to door, asking voters questions about if and how they voted in previous elections. This practice caused alarm and confusion for some residents.

And in Georgia, mass challenges of voter eligibility based on spurious “data-matching” raised the concern that some groups might attempt to challenge numerous voters at the polls, leading to chaos and tension.

By and large, though, the push to recruit an “army” of poll watchers and observers didn’t amount to much. Many election officials reported that when they tested machines, canvassed votes and performed routine tabulation audits, almost nobody showed up to watch. Overall, polling places, tabulation centers and the like were relatively calm scenes.

Given all the real reason for concern, what went right in this past election? In short, many of the people who needed to step up did so.

Election officials—despite being exhausted from the 2020 cycle and the pandemic — dedicated themselves to educating voters, building trust, responding to a flood of public records requests, beefing up physical security at their election offices and providing their staff with additional resources to help them feel safe as they performed their crucial work for democracy.

State and local law enforcement leaders stepped up, too, in part by partnering with election officials through groups like the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections—which is supported by the Brennan Center for Justice and other organizations—to ensure that when election officials or election workers reported a need for help, they would be there to protect workers and voters. And some of them took the important step of making their support for democracy loud and clear; for instance when Maricopa County Sheriff Penzone announced that he would step up patrols to prevent intimidation of voters using ballot drop boxes.   

But none of this was or is free. Joint events with law enforcement and election officials, backup police support and resource distribution, keycard access systems protecting election equipment and infrastructure and bulletproof glass in office spaces all cost money.

Election offices are perennially underfunded. Longer-term, consistent and adequate funding from the federal government is necessary to ensure that instead of running on fumes, election workers have the support they need to continually improve at their jobs without worrying for their own safety and that of their families.

To that end, both the House and the Senate should take care, before they go home to be with their families for the holidays, that they pass the budget that currently includes $400 million for elections. While this isn’t enough to sustain our democracy long-term, it’s the least that can be done for the heroes who have done so much for the rest of us.

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Gowri Ramachandran is senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Election Reform program. Before joining the Brennan Center, she was professor of law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles where she taught courses in constitutional law, employment discrimination, critical race theory and the Ninth Circuit Appellate Litigation Clinic.