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Election Workers Are Under Attack. A Group Of Lawyers Plans To Defend Them

A voter holds an, 'I Voted!' sticker, after casting her ballot during the Florida presidential primary last March.
A voter holds an, 'I Voted!' sticker, after casting her ballot during the Florida presidential primary last March.

Voting officials nationwide are still grappling with a new reality after the 2020 election that includes death threats, conspiracy theories and legal penalties for making what were once regarded as minor mistakes, but on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of attorneys announced an organization aimed at helping them fight back.

The Election Official Legal Defense Network is the first organization of its kind aimed at providing pro-bono legal help and advice for election officials who up until a year ago did not really need it.

"It would be better if this wasn't necessary," said David Becker, a cofounder of the group and the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. "But given the conversations many of us have had with election officials around the country, it's an unfortunate byproduct of the environment we now live in and the election denialism we're now seeing."

Election officials nationwide describe a shift over the past year in the pressure and adversity that come with their jobs, and they attribute most of that to the pervasive false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen in some way from former President Donald Trump.

There has never been any evidence to support that claim, though Trump and his supporters continue to push the conspiracy. Republican-led legislatures across the country have passed restrictive voting bills in response to questions about the vote's integrity.

A Trump fundraising email Wednesday morning asked, "Do you agree cheating in our elections is a serious problem?" with a link to a donation page.

And a survey conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group earlier this year of local election officials found that a third of them had at some point felt unsafe because of their jobs.

"It's been rough," Washington state election director Lori Augino told NPR. Augino, who has been the subject of threats herself, says, "It's been like nothing I've ever seen in my 26-plus years of conducting elections."

Brian Corley, who runs elections in Pasco County, Fla., said Wednesday during a media briefing about the new legal defense network that he was called an "enemy of the state" last year for sending voters a postcard asking them to consider voting by mail during a pandemic. His staff has been subject to dozens of racial slurs.

"Last November just continues," said Corley. "It's like Groundhog Day."

The new legal group aims to provide a support system for officials and let them know someone "has their backs," said cofounder Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election attorney who represented the George W. Bush campaign.

Ginsberg will co-chair the organization with Bob Bauer, who worked as White House counsel in the Obama administration.

The group will also provide legal advice related to new voting laws in some states that add steep penalties if election officials make mistakes or get creative in providing access to the ballot box.

In Florida, for instance, a new law says an election official could be on the hook for a $25,000 fine if an absentee ballot drop box is left without in-person supervision.

A new law in Iowa similarly could mean local election officials face fines of up to $10,000 for "technical infractions."

And a new Texas law signed into law this week empowers partisan poll watchers to further affect the voting process.

"What we are seeing developing now is a huge step backwards from a focus on professionalized election administration to a heavy level of political interference in the work of trained election professionals," said Bauer. "Our hope now is to provide [election officials] with a resource I wish they didn't have to have, but one I think they have desperately needed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.