We need poll workers. And they need protection

by Trey Grayson

Election officials used to toil in relative obscurity. Poll workers put in long, intense hours around voting time, filling low-paid bureaucratic roles that were poorly understood by the public they served. 

But since 2020, that world has turned upside down. Today, many election workers are the subject of harassment, threats and even acts of violence. Some have had to flee their homes or have been assaulted. One said it’s “like nothing I’ve ever seen.”  

The sudden vitriol stems from the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, which has metastasized in voting precincts nationwide. The result is as predictable as it is disturbing: all across the country, election workers are quitting in record numbers. In my own home state of Kentucky — hardly a battleground — about 20% of all county clerks opted to retire rather than run for reelection last year. 

Which raises an urgent question for 2024: Who is going to be left to work the elections?  

A Boston Globe review of six states — Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — found a roughly 30% increase in turnover among election officials since 2020. This will only exacerbate an already critical manpower shortage at a time when trust in elections is historically low and declining. 

Now think about the following hypothetical: It’s November of next year and voting is underway. Throughout the country, polling places are drastically understaffed due to waves of resignations. Many of those who are working are inexperienced. This leads to long lines at the polls and even longer waits for results as vote counting is conducted by skeleton crews working around the clock. 

Last time — in an election widely considered to be the most secure in history — we saw rampant conspiracy theories and simmering violence that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. What might we expect in this even graver, more combustible scenario?  

And the problem isn’t confined to just one side. Over the years, those on the left have registered their share of doubts about free and fair elections. After the 2000 vote-counting debacle in Florida, more than a third of Democrats said they thought the election had been stolen. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Nancy Pelosi said, “Our election was hijacked. There is no question.” Hillary Clinton called Trump an “illegitimate president.” After losing the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, Stacey Abrams refused to concede, saying the election was “rigged” and “stolen.” In the lead-up to 2020, Democrats charged that Trump’s postmaster general was trying to “sabotage” the election. 

None of which is to draw a false equivalence between the two sides after the 2020 election. The violence of Jan. 6 was appalling. But we see from both Democrats and Republicans a growing tendency to cast doubt on the legitimacy of elections that their side loses. This spells trouble in 2024. 

That’s why we must fix the problem, and do it now. The task of restoring Americans’ confidence in elections is too great for any single election administrator, agency or legislature to handle alone. It requires cooperation within and between governments at every level. The best way to safeguard against future crises is by building a broad-based, cross-partisan coalition of election defenders who are willing to stand up for the integrity of the vote. 

A reform agenda should have two priorities: ensuring no votes are tampered with or cast fraudulently; and preserving access to the ballot for everyone who’s eligible. We should provide more funding at the state level to improve voting technology, much of which is hopelessly antiquated. And we should hire more election administration personnel across the board to enable more timely reporting of results.  

Common-sense solutions like automated voter registration have proven effective at cutting costs and making voting systems more efficient in red and blue states alike. And doing so improves the accuracy of these states’ registration lists without purging voters — something that the “election integrity” crowd and the “voting rights” crowd can both celebrate. 

At the same time, we should also work to expose fake or fraudulent security ideas being passed off by politicians who are trying to manipulate our elections. Governors should veto bills that would have the effect of undermining election integrity, as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf did last year in the lead-up to the midterms. Lastly, Democrats should learn to accept that not all election security measures equal voter suppression, and Republicans should learn that voter access is good politics. 

Or we can do nothing, let the partisan acrimony continue to boil, and hope the problem goes away on its own. In the meantime, the indispensable talent that makes up the unseen-but-essential backbone of American democracy will continue to slip away under a deluge of tribal acrimony. 

If we don’t stand up for election workers, we’re going to be forced to reckon with a world without them. And that’s a nightmare scenario for democracy. The choice is ours. 

Trey Grayson serves as advisory board co-chair of the Secure Elections Project. He previously served as Kentucky’s secretary of state and chair of the Republican Association of Secretaries of State.