Republican Legislators Curb Authority of County, State Election Officials

In this Oct. 20, 2020, file photo, Kelly Wingfield, of Urbandale, Iowa, fills out his ballot during early voting for the general election in Adel, Iowa.

In this Oct. 20, 2020, file photo, Kelly Wingfield, of Urbandale, Iowa, fills out his ballot during early voting for the general election in Adel, Iowa. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File

Many election officials resisted White House pressure to overturn the 2020 results.

This is part three of Stateline’s 2021 Legislative Review.

Republican lawmakers this year passed an unprecedented bevy of bills targeting the authority of state and local election officials, a power grab that might allow partisan legislators to overturn future election results by claiming there was fraud.

GOP legislators in at least 14 states have enacted 23 new laws that empower state officials to take control of county election boards, strip secretaries of state of their executive authority, or make local election officials criminally or financially liable for even technical errors, according to Protect Democracy, a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based voting rights nonprofit.

Secretaries of state and county election officials around the country, many of them Republican, resisted pressure from former President Donald Trump and his allies to decertify the November 2020 results and reject huge swaths of mail-in ballots to turn the presidential election in his favor. Eight months later, there is growing concern among those officials that these new laws may cut a path for successful efforts in the future.

“Some elected officials didn’t like the results, so they’re trying to rewrite the rules,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who chairs the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “This is a breakdown of what it means to live in the United States. It’s an attack on the democracy. It’s an attack on the idea that Americans get to choose their elected officials.”

Trump, without evidence, continues to falsely assert that widespread fraud cost him reelection. Election security experts and top national security officials have said voter fraud is rare and that the last election was the most secure in U.S. history. Nevertheless, GOP lawmakers say their changes are necessary to protect the integrity of future elections.

“What is to the left suppression, to the right is security,” said Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican. “We think ballots that go to voters who long ago died or moved increases the potential for voter fraud. For every person that votes fraudulently, they’re suppressing the vote of those who vote legally.”

After President Joe Biden won Arizona and Georgia in November, flipping two dependably Republican states, the two states became epicenters in the fight over ballot access and election powers. Republican lawmakers in those and other states, such as Iowa and Texas, have tirelessly sought to limit access to early and mail-in voting and shift election oversight to legislatures.

Arizona Republican legislators inserted a provision into this year’s state budget that stripped Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of her power to represent the state in election lawsuits.

Until Hobbs’ term ends in 2023, the new law shifts those duties to Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich. GOP leaders argued Hobbs would not fairly defend the state election laws in court.

“She has a history of not performing her duty to defend state law, but to enter into settlement agreements for laws she didn’t like,” said Kavanagh, who chairs the House Government and Elections Committee. “That’s not her job, so we’re going to put this in the hands of the attorney general.”

Hobbs, however, said this move is a part of a broader, ongoing assault on ballot access that aims to empower the legislature to determine election outcomes.

“This is not about me following the law or not,” Hobbs said. “It’s not just a one-off. Certainly, the attacks we’ve seen on elections on all fronts—on voting rights, on election administration—is all a coordinated attack and this is one aspect of it.”

Democratic state Rep. Athena Salman, the minority whip, said GOP efforts to shift election oversight are a power play by Republicans worried about losing control of state government.

“These policies continue to legitimize through no evidence that our election administrators can’t be trusted,” she said. “It’s incredibly disturbing. It continues to undermine faith in democracy.”

Arizona Senate Republicans have launched a partisan audit of Maricopa County’s results, trying to find evidence of fraud in the hopes of overturning Biden’s win in the state. The audit has drawn widespread ire from election security experts, who say it has compromised the integrity of the Phoenix area’s election equipment.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in March signed into law a measure that demotes the secretary of state from the chair of the State Board of Elections and allows the legislature to appoint most members of the board. It also permits the board to suspend election officials.

Using this new law, Republican lawmakers are considering a state takeover of Fulton County elections, threatening local control of the Democratic stronghold in the Atlanta area. After the November presidential election, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger resisted calls from Trump and other Republicans to decertify Biden’s victory in the Peach State.

New laws nationwide also personally target local election officials, many of whom are still reeling from the challenge of providing safe access to the ballot during the pandemic and contending with a misinformation campaign that sowed doubt in the democratic process.

Joel Miller lives under the fear that making a mistake in his role as the chief election officer for the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area could cost him up to $10,000.

Republican lawmakers in the Hawkeye State enacted a new measure earlier this year that makes county auditors such as Miller, a Democrat, liable for financial penalties for technical infractions. Those could range from a vote tallying error to proactively sending out absentee ballot applications.

The threat of hefty fines has created hostility between many county officials and the state legislature and secretary of state’s office, he said. Miller sees this as another attack in a nationwide assault on election administration since November.

“It looks very unfair, inappropriate, not based in reality,” he said. “Now, it’s law and we have to deal with it.”

Since Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Iowa legislation in March, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate has cited county auditors for more than 10 technical infractions, but none came with a fine. A spokesperson said Pate’s office has provided election officials with resources and information to comply with the measure and has a positive working relationship with a vast majority of the state’s 99 county auditors.

“All Iowans are expected to follow the law, and local election officials are no different,” said Kevin Hall, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, in an email. Republican state Sen. Roby Smith, who chairs the committee that drafted the legislation, declined to comment.

A similar proposal in Texas would make it a felony for county election officials to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot applications. In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed into law a measure that would fine county supervisors up to $25,000 for leaving ballot drop boxes unattended.

In Arkansas, Republican lawmakers passed a law that allows the state legislature to investigate county election offices for suspected election fraud. This could lead to the decertification of county election officials, a takeover of county election offices by the State Board of Elections and a fine of up to $1,000 against county officials.

“We’re seeing a trend where highly partisan state legislators are seeking to disrupt the way that elections have been run in this country for decades,” said Jessica Marsden, an attorney for Protect Democracy. “We don’t think you can run a fair election in those circumstances. It’s an incredibly serious threat to our democracy.”

These new measures come as Republican legislators in at least 18 states have enacted 30 new laws that curb early and mail-in voting, add new voter ID requirements and limit the use of ballot drop boxes, according to a July count by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

“You can’t ignore the context in which these bills are being passed,” said Derek Tisler, a democracy fellow at the Brennan Center. “This is a bad faith pressure campaign. I don’t think anyone disagrees that election officials should follow the law, but these overly punitive laws may chill election officials from performing their jobs.”

Local election officials have been the subject of immense criticism and pressure in recent years, said John Ackerman, Republican clerk for Tazewell County in central Illinois. From the fallout of Russian hacking attempts during the 2016 presidential election to false accusations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, Ackerman said he must wade through condemnation and misinformation to fulfill his responsibilities.

“It’s disheartening,” he said. “I just have to do my job the best I can and communicate with the public.”

The Brennan Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank, last month released a report that found 1 in 3 election officials feel unsafe because of their jobs. The U.S. Department of Justice last month launched a task force centered on threats to election officials.

“Election officials at both the state and local levels are exhausted,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that advocates for election officials and democratic reforms. “They’re feeling under-appreciated, they’re feeling attacked, they’re feeling under-resourced and it hasn’t stopped since last year.

“Really, at this moment, we should be celebrating local election officials for a job well done in the face of adversity, and instead we’re criminalizing them and placing new restrictions on what they can and cannot do.”

While Travis Weipert, Democratic auditor for Johnson County, Iowa, loves his job, the harassment, legislative threats and broad misinformation have taken a toll. He and his wife have discussed him returning to the private sector, but he wants to stay in his role for now.

“The attacks on us are extremely disappointing,” he said. “I’m totally concerned.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.