Oct 24, 2022 - Politics

A new law to protect election workers gets its first test

Illustration of a traffic safety cone surrounded by various colors and ballot icons

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Washington state law now makes it a felony to harass election workers online — but it's unclear if it will be enough to combat the threats election officials have already started receiving in their inboxes.

Driving the news: The Legislature updated the state's cyberstalking law earlier this year to increase criminal penalties for those who use the internet to target election workers.

  • The new law, which took effect in June, makes such behavior a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine.
  • Before, such harassment was generally considered a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

Yes, but: After the August primary, an election worker in the Jefferson County Auditor's Office received an email they found so threatening that they went to court — and received — a restraining order against the person who sent it, court records show.

  • The email, with the subject line "Lol," said, "You are being being [sic] watched! Be careful … your life might depend on it. The truth will prevail," according to a copy of the email reviewed by Axios.
  • The message came from a person who had come to the office and emailed before, the county auditor, Rose Ann Carroll, told Axios.
  • The Jefferson County prosecutor's office hasn't filed criminal charges, the office confirmed. Chris Ashcraft, chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said the case is undergoing additional review and would not comment further.

Of note: Axios knows the worker's identity, but is honoring their request not to be named in this story due to their fear of future harassment.

Why it matters: Since last summer, election workers nationwide have reported behavior they deemed threatening or harassing more than 1,000 times, according to a recent FBI report. Of those reports, 11% met federal criteria for further investigative action, per the FBI.

  • Washington officials have also received threats before. In 2020, the state's then-elections director was a target of online harassment, with her picture and home address posted on a website listing "enemies of the people" who allegedly helped steal the 2020 election from former President Trump, state officials said at the time.
  • The state elections director's picture was placed in crosshairs alongside a countdown clock and the words, "your days are numbered," The Seattle Times reported.

What they're saying: Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) said he was appalled by the election director incident and other harassment of election workers that he saw between November 2020 and January 2021.

  • While Frockt originally pushed for a different law that would have increased penalties for in-person harassment of election workers as well, that measure failed to pass.
  • He and his colleagues decided to amend a separate cyber harassment bill to address at least some of the threats that election workers receive, he said.
  • "I don't know how we can tolerate this and have our democracy sustain itself," Frockt told Axios last week.

Between the lines: The new law applies to threatening posts on websites and social media platforms, as well harassment and threats communicated via text message or email.

  • Yet the case in Jefferson County shows that filing charges might not always be a simple matter.
  • Those threats can nonetheless be frightening, and even cause election workers to consider leaving the profession, the Jefferson County worker told Axios Friday.
  • "I had to do some serious soul searching,” the election worker said in a phone interview. "I had to talk to my spouse and my family and we had to sit down together to make sure this is a path I wanted to continue on."

Of note: Of recent threats to election workers that merited further investigation, 43% came by email, while 26% came through social media, according to the FBI.

Zoom out: As of last week, the secretary of state's office said it hadn't heard of other threats to election workers in Washington state this year. Nor had the state association of county auditors.

What we're watching: Frockt said the next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether the state's new law is working.

  • The Jefferson County worker said they think it would be helpful if lawmakers look at additional protections for election employees.
  • Carroll, the county auditor, agreed. "Election workers are committed to preserving democracy," she told Axios Friday. "It’s not fair or right that their families also become exposed to threats."
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